In about 100 heartbreaking minutes, Noah Haidle’s “Birthday Candles” manages to capture one of the defining dichotomies of human existence. Our lives are utterly unique, but they are also – with the exception of a few – equally mundane as we move from childhood to adulthood to adulthood.
Yet, as Ernestine Ashworth passionately proclaims on her 17th birthday in the first scene of the emotionally charged drama that opened Wednesday night at Skokie’s Northlight Theater, she intends to rebel against the universe and its banalities.
Her life, Ernestine insists, will be unexpected and non-conformist. “I’m going to surprise God,” she exuberantly proclaims as her mother gathers the ingredients needed to make her daughter’s birthday cake.
Directed by Jessica Thebus and starring Kate Fry as Ernestine, from youth to centenarian, “Birthday Candles” captures a life defined by peaks of joy and devastation. Ernestine might not realize her adolescent ideal: rebelling against the universe. But as Haidle shows through a series of birthdays, Ernestine shapes a life of meaning and impact.
The years pass to the rhythm of a chime (subtly otherworldly sound design by André Pluess), but whether at 17 or 101, Earnestine centers her birthday around baking a golden butter cake, a tradition instilled by his mother and which was transmitted to her. girl. (Fry bakes a cake on stage. The recipe is available in the theater lobby.)
At 18, the rebellious Ernestine is rather reserved; it suffered the first of many seismic losses. The source of her sadness is revealed with an almost monosyllabic tone, the conciseness making Ernestine’s grief overwhelming in comparison.
But amid the loss, there’s humor throughout “Birthday Candles,” much of it from endearingly awkward boy-next-door Kenneth (Timothy Edward Kane), who initiates an insistent courtship which lasts a lifetime.
Teenager Ernestine is in love with Matt (Chike Johnson), a high school crush who continues to play a major role in her birthday celebrations as she navigates motherhood and middle age, and into the depths of the years where she outlived many of the people she loves.
With the exception of Fry (who never leaves the stage) and Kane (who will have you rooting for Kenneth throughout his eight-decade friendship with Ernestine), Thebus’s cast is double and triple.
Along the way, we meet Ernestine’s children, Billy (Samuel B. Jackson) and Madeline (Cyd Blakewell), as well as Billy’s deeply insecure wife, Joan (Corrbette Pasko). There are grandchildren, too, each birth counterbalanced by loss as Ernestine’s loved ones depart into starry darkness (created with flickering beauty by lighting designer JR Lederle).
As Matt, Johnson’s arc takes him from Ernestine’s handsome prom date to an elderly person in need. His final scene with Ernestine is a vivid portrait of forgiveness and a reminder that the depravities and indignities of old age and illness adhere to neither a pattern nor a reason. Life is essentially chaos, Ernestine concludes, and it’s best kept at bay through ritual and love.
Ernestine’s life is still defined by family. Fry captures her joy at being surrounded by loved ones connected by blood, tradition and buttercake, as well as her tears when she has to cook alone. Ernestine’s journey is an emotional epic and Fry makes every step truthful.
Thebus does a superb job of drawing raw, authentic emotion from his ensemble. And while Haidle’s storyline veers toward sentimentality, his revelation of love’s inevitable downside—loss—is sharp as a scalpel.
Blakewell is warmly effervescent as Alice, Ernestine’s loving and animated mother, and heartbreaking as her tormented daughter Madeline, a young woman who can’t help but wear her emotions on her sleeve.
Pasko generates undeniable empathy while simultaneously harnessing a shooting star of laughter with Joan’s motor neuroses. And as Ernestine’s son Billy, Jackson captures with vivid clarity the bravado of a brash youth and the humility of an adult beset by illness.
The set of Sotirios Livaditis balances the cozy warmth of a functional kitchen with the planetary universe looming above, stardust a key ingredient both in the galaxies and, Ernestine insists, in the cake .
In a way, “Birthday Candles” evokes Thornton Wilder’s piercing “Our Town.” Both focus on a singular family and repeatedly remind viewers that life as we know it is as fleeting as a breath.
As Ernestine says: “I always had a million things to do. And when I looked up, everyone was gone. When she moves through her daily life intoning, “I’m going to notice this,” it’s a reminder to do just that, no matter how mundane the moment seems.