Northlight's 'Birthday Candles' a sweet reflection of an ordinary life, well-lived
"Birthday Candles" -- ★ ★ ★
We meet Ernestine Ashworth, the woman around whom Noah Haidle's "Birthday Candles" centers, on her 17th birthday as she declares herself "a rebel against the universe," a maverick who promises to "surprise God."
Those of us who were similarly precocious teenagers may recognize ourselves in Ernestine, whose not-so-rebellious life Haidle chronicles over some 80 years in his poignant dramedy in its Chicago-area premiere at Northlight Theatre.
We may also recognize ourselves in the adult Ernestine (played at every age with painstaking clarity and candor by the exceptional Kate Fry) whose unremarkable life consists of those quotidian experiences -- love and heartache, joy and disappointment, separation and reconciliation, sorrow and death -- that define human existence.
We observe her life over a series of birthdays, all of them accompanied by the baking of a cake "made up of stardust and atoms left over from creation," and celebrated with family and friends in her homey Grand Rapids, Michigan, kitchen. Set designer Sotirios Livaditis' revealing backdrop consisting of a night sky crowded with constellations suggests the small place Ernestine occupies in the universe. Juxtaposing the ethereal and the terrestrial, the eternal and the temporal, the set underscores the relative unimportance of one person in relation to the cosmos.
Those constellations also serve as a reminder of relationships, the memory of which persists, that evidence a life well-lived. So it is with Ernestine, whose significance is measured -- as it is for most of us -- in those we touch, the compassion we provide and the love we share.
The beneficiaries of Ernestine's love and compassion include her high school sweetheart-turned-husband Matt (ChikÚ Johnson), her troubled daughter Madeline (Cyd Blakewell), son Billy (Samuel B. Jackson), Billy's wife, Joan (Corrbette Pasko), and Ernestine's next-door neighbor and longtime admirer Kenneth (the terrific Timothy Edward Kane, Fry's real-life husband).
Except for Fry and Kane, director Jessica Thebus' actors are double- and triple-cast playing children and grandchildren whose passing is accompanied by lighting designer JR Lederle's delicately evocative twilight.
Like life, "Birthday Candles" is rooted in loss and laughter. Haidle's frequent pairing of sorrow and humor makes for an overly sentimental narrative. Directing with a sure but gentle touch, Thebus keeps sentiment in check, which results in warm, authentic performances from Northlight's fine cast.
Pasko is a hoot as Joan, whose insecurities result in some highly comic moments. But Haidle reserves his funniest dialogue and best quips for Kenneth, endearingly played by Kane, whose comic timing is as impeccable as his emotion is heartfelt.
The scenes between him and Fry are simply lovely. But this show belongs to Fry, who remains on stage for the entirety of the 100-minute play. Her deeply felt performance -- underscored by Ernestine's subtle longing for a life she might have led -- animates Northlight's production of this more sweet than bitter tale about a life lived not defiantly, but with purpose and love.
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Location: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300, northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 8
Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Free in the adjacent lot
Rating: For teens and older, references mature subjects including mental illness