Birthday Candles is a new play now on stage at Northlight Theatre. It’s a poignant comedy/drama that will cure your emotional ills for an evening with its story of love, life and aging. And a goldfish named Atman.
Jessica Thebus directs this sweet and sentimental play by Noah Haidle. The production is notable for its creative staging, imaginative use of time–and excellent casting decisions. Ernestine Ashworth begins the play on her 17th birthday and ends it 100 minutes later on her 107th. Kate Fry as Ernestine is on stage for every minute. The other five actors play parents, sweethearts, spouses, children and grandchildren through the years.
And there’s the cake. On every birthday, Ernestine attempts to bake the birthday cake, which her mother Alice (Cyd Blakewell)) is baking for her on her 17th birthday. After that birthday, Ernestine is alone as the baker with help and occasionally hindrance from friends and relatives.
The only other actor who plays a single character throughout—and ages along with Ernestine—is Timothy Edward Kane, who plays Kenneth, the boy next door. On Ernestine’s 18th birthday—as she still mourns her mother’s death—Kenneth asks, “People say I have terrible timing, but do you want to go to prom with me?“ Ernestine declines but Kenneth persists over the years and eventually, late in life, they become a couple. (That’s only a tiny spoiler.)
Chiké Johnson (memorable from his role as Galileo in Remy Bumppo’s Galileo’s Daughter) plays Ernestine’s boyfriend, husband and other parts. Blakewell also is daughter and other relatives over the years. Samuel B. Jackson is both child and parent as is Corrbette Pasko. Both of them first play boyfriend/girlfriend, then parents and so on. That’s life, right?
Birthday Candles is notable in many ways. The playwright suggests and Thebus follows through by avoiding the trap that can happen when younger actors play older people. Haidle advises that Ernestine’s transformation is much more inner than outer; the play doesn’t advise how her transformation takes place. She’s on stage without a costume change for the entire 90 years. While we may think at first glance that Fry and Kane don’t look like 18, it turns out that it doesn’t matter. They don’t look 88 either.
The character (if we call it that) that does age is Atman, the goldfish that is Kenneth’s 18th birthday present to Ernestine. (Atman is a Sanskrit word signifying spirit or divinity within yourself.) By play’s end, Atman 103 is with us; the newest goldfish remains on Ernestine’s kitchen table representing her spirit as she ages—and she occasionally talks to Atman.
Two elements of staging also deserve notice. While Ernestine’s kitchen remains the same (set design by Soritios Livaditis), time changes are signaled with a sound and quick blackout. And deaths of the many characters over the years are also signaled with a clever lighting pattern as each character departs. (Lighting design by JR Lederle; sound design by Andre Pluess. Costume design is by Rachel Anne Healy. Rita Vreeland is stage manager.)
Birthday Candles was in rehearsal for a Broadway opening in March 2020 when the pandemic struck. It finally opened on Broadway in April 2022. His other plays include Saturn Returns and Smokefall. He also writes for TV (the upcoming Showtime series, Kidding) and is playwright in residence at the National Theater of Mannheim. He says he is better known as a playwright in Germany; Birthday Candles will be his 10th play performed there.
Birthday Candles continues at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie, through October 8. Tickets are $49-$89 for performances Wednesday-Sunday. There are two performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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