In emotionally rich ‘Birthday Candles,’ a woman shapes her identity as she bakes her annual cake

Kate Fry, playing the heroine of the Northlight Theatre play from youth to centenarian, makes each step truthful.

SHARE In emotionally rich ‘Birthday Candles,’ a woman shapes her identity as she bakes her annual cake
Ernestine (Kate Fry) and Kenneth (Timothy Edward Kane) discuss life and a whole lot more in “Birthday Candles” at Northlight Theatre.

Ernestine (Kate Fry) and Kenneth (Timothy Edward Kane) discuss life and a whole lot more in “Birthday Candles” at Northlight Theatre.

Michael Brosilow

In roughly 100 tear-jerking minutes, Noah Haidle’s “Birthday Candles” manages to capture one of the defining dichotomies of human existence. Our lives are utterly unique, yet they are also — save a very few — equally unremarkable as we cycle from childhood to adulthood to dotage.

Still, as Ernestine Ashworth passionately proclaims on her 17th birthday in the first scene of the emotionally rich drama that opened Wednesday night at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre, she intends to rebel against the universe and its banalities.

Her life, Ernestine insists, will be unexpected and nonconformist. “I am going to surprise God,” she proclaims exuberantly as her mother gathers the ingredients needed to bake 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 spikes of joy and devastation. Ernestine might not achieve her teenage ideals of rebelling against the universe. But as Haidle shows through a series of birthdays, Ernestine shapes a life of purpose and impact.

‘Birthday Candles’

Birthday Candles review

When: Through Oct. 8

Where: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

Tickets: $49 - $89

Run time: 100 minutes, no intermission

Info: northlight.org

The years pass with the ring of a chime (subtly unearthly sound design by Andre Pluess), but whether at 17 or 101, Earnestine centers her birthday around the baking of a golden butter cake, a tradition instilled by her mother and passed down to her daughter. (Fry actually bakes a cake on stage. The recipe is available in the theater lobby.)

At 18, the rebel Ernestine is somewhat subdued; she’s endured the first of many seismic losses. The source of her sadness is revealed with almost monosyllabic matter-of-factness, the terseness making Ernestine’s sorrow seem overwhelming by comparison.

But amid loss, there’s humor throughout “Birthday Candles,” much of it from endearing, awkward, boy-next-door Kenneth (Timothy Edward Kane), who launches an insistent courtship that lasts a lifetime.

Teenage Ernestine is smitten with Matt (Chike Johnson), a high school crush who continues to play a major role in her birthday celebrations as she moves through motherhood and middle age, and deep into the years when she’s outlived many of the people she loves.

Kate Fry (from left), Chike Johnson, Samuel B. Jackson, Corrbette Pasko, Cyd Blakewell and Timothy Edward Kane star in “Birthday Candles” at Northlight Theatre.

Kate Fry (from left), Chike Johnson, Samuel B. Jackson, Corrbette Pasko, Cyd Blakewell and Timothy Edward Kane star in “Birthday Candles” at Northlight Theatre.

Michael Brosilow

With the exception of Fry (who never leaves the stage) and Kane (who will have you rooting for Kenneth throughout his eight-decades friendship with Ernestine), Thebus’ cast is double- and triple-cast.

Along the way we meet Ernestine’s children Billy (Samuel B. Jackson) and Madeline (Cyd Blakewell) and Billy’s deeply insecure wife Joan (Corrbette Pasko). There are grandchildren as well, each birth counterpointed 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 needy senior citizen. His final scene with Ernestine is a living portrait of forgiveness, and a reminder that the depravities and indignities of old age and illness adhere to neither pattern nor reason. Life is mostly chaos, Ernestine concludes, and it’s best kept at bay through ritual and love.

Throughout, Ernestine’s life is defined by family. Fry captures her joy at being surrounded by loved ones who are bound by blood, tradition and butter cake and her tears when she’s left to bake on her own. Ernestine’s journey is an emotional epic, and Fry makes each step truthful.

Thebus does a superb job in drawing raw, authentic emotion from her ensemble. And while Haidle’s script veers toward sentimentality, its spare exposure of love’s inevitable flip side — loss — is sharp as a scalpel.

Blakewell is warmly effervescent as Ernestine’s loving, animated mother Alice and heart-breaking as her tormented daughter Madeline, a young woman who can’t help but wear her emotions on her sleeve.

Pasko generates inarguable empathy while simultaneously mining a lodestar of laughs with Joan’s motor-mouthed neuroses. And as Ernestine’s son Billy, Jackson captures the bravado of a brash youth and the humility of an adult beset by illness with vivid clarity.

Sotirios Livaditis’ set balances the homey warmth of a functioning kitchen with the planetary universe that looms above, stardust being a key ingredient in both the galaxies and, insists Ernestine, cake.

In some ways, “Birthday Candles” evokes Thornton Wilder’s piercing “Our Town.” Both put an intense focus on a singular family, both repeatedly remind viewers that life as we know it is fleeting as breath.

As Ernestine puts it: “I always had a million things to do. And when I looked up, everybody was gone.” When she moves through her daily life intoning “I will notice this,” it’s a reminder to do just that, no matter how mundane the moment seems.

The Latest
The acidity of the Champagne cuts through the fat and salt or the potatoes, while the fat and salt balances the acidity.
Curly? Steak? Waffle? Crinkle cut? There is cause for debate around which particular french fry is best.
Bowman returns to an official NHL post for the first time since 2021, when he resigned as Hawks GM during the sexual assault scandal.
Utah’s capital city was the only candidate for 2034 after the Olympic committee gave Salt Lake City exclusive negotiating rights last year.
Around 5:20 a.m., state troopers responded to a rollover crash in the eastbound lanes of the Eisenhower just east of the Tri-State Tollway, Illinois State police said.