In lesser hands than those of director Jessica Thebus and her superb ensemble, the Chicago premiere of Noah Haidle’s “Birthday Candles” at Northlight Theatre might seem stilted and overly sentimental. But here the poignant, poetic, 100-minute existential comedy treats an ordinary woman’s loves and losses over nearly a century with such delicacy and grace that it is a circle of life memorably made manifest.
The woman in question is Ernestine Ashworth, brilliantly played by Kate Fry, who is on stage the entire time. We first see her on her 17th birthday, and she’s helping her mother Alice (Cyd Blakewell) make her birthday cake in anticipation of the party to come. This is an annual tradition, as is measuring Ernestine’s height and marking it on the wall. Another tradition, apparently, is that her neighbor Kenneth (Timothy Edward Kane) pops in unannounced, scaring her and bringing an unusual present. This time it’s a goldfish that he says “represents your inner divinity.” He’s been in love with her since they were 7, but as she tells him, the feeling isn’t reciprocated.
Instead, as an offstage chime sounds the passage of time, Ernestine at 18 goes to prom with Matt (Chiké Johnson) and marries him. Next thing we know, years have passed and she has a son, Billy (Samuel B. Jackson), who is the same age she was when the play started. She and Matt also have a daughter, Madeline (Blakewell), who goes away to college, and Billy has an intensely neurotic girlfriend, Joan (Corrbette Pasko), whom he will marry.
As the chime rings, the years pass at irregular intervals, and the pace seems to accelerate, as it often does in real life. The children have children, and Ernestine becomes a grandmother. There also are deaths: first her mother, then Madeline, then Matt. Her family ebbs and flows around her, propelled by everything from the natural course of their lives to arguments and betrayals, until eventually everyone is gone. She also does some of the things she wanted to and experiences unexpected pleasures.
Always, however, the action is on Ernestine’s birthday, in her kitchen and involves the cake, which is whipped up before our eyes (more or less). This is no ordinary birthday cake, either. As Alice explains in the first scene, besides butter, sugar, flour and salt, the ingredients include “stardust, the machinery of the cosmos” and “atoms left over from creation.”
This trope is repeated several times, as are others in various contexts. The precocious 17-year-old Ernestine declares, “I am a rebel against the universe. I will wage war with the everyday. I am going to surprise God!” This comes back to taunt her. Teenagers of two generations insult their elders with “You’re a shadow in a suit posing as a human, you should be ashamed of yourself.” Characters recite lines from “King Lear” harking back to Ernestine’s high school performance as “Queen Lear.”
The big risk with having a handful of actors portray so many characters who age over a short period of time is the tendency to overact in order to make the distinctions clear. But as a director Thebus has a light touch, and that problem is avoided almost completely.
Starting with Fry who — without any makeup or big costume changes — is completely natural and convincing no matter what age she’s supposed to be, no one forces the issue of age or becomes a caricature. They move and speak a little more slowly but, except for Billy’s heart-breaking mental confusion and his awareness of it, that’s about it.
My favorite scenes are those between Fry and Kane, who are married in real life. He has terrific comic timing, and his Kenneth is so funny, determined and loyal that one really wants him to find the happiness he deserves.
Sotirios Livaditis’ set design, beautifully lit by JR Lederie and supplied with props by Bren Coombs, features a fully furnished kitchen on a circular floor backed by a huge circular map of the cosmos. It’s suitably surreal, and when characters bow out, they leave the circle under the light of stars. Andre Pluess’ sound design and Rachel Anne Healy’s unobtrusive costumes complete the picture.
I have only two quibbles with a show that’s well worth the trip to Skokie. The program could use a family tree to help us keep the characters straight, and Ernestine needs a better birthday cake. It should be at least two layers, not a puny one layer, and it should get frosted, even if it doesn’t get eaten.