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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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‘Birthday Candles’ creates something sweet at Northlight Theatre

Contributed by Michael Brosilow
Ernestine (Kate Fry) and her son Billy (Samuel B. Jackson) share a tender moment during Northlight Theatre’s production of “Birthday Candles.”

One cup of butter, half a cup of sugar, two eggs, two teaspoons of vanilla extract, two cups of flour. This recipe ― pinned to a bulletin board ― is the first thing the audience sees when walking into Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Hand-scrawled and simple, it promises the memories of home, family and a delicious cake; this production of “Birthday Candles” delivers. 

When the lights finally dim and the show begins, we are introduced to 17-year-old Ernestine Ashworth (Kate Fry).  Perfectly over-dramatic and insecure all at once, Ernestine rehearses her audition for a production of “Queen Lear” while learning a cake recipe from her mother, Alice (Cyd Blakewell). They embrace and Alice blesses her daughter: “I wish you so many beautiful hours.” A trailing chime sounds, floor lights underneath the stage turn on and Alice exits showered with dots of light. 

Ernestine is 18 in the next scene, and we learn that her mother died of an unknown illness only days after the “Queen Lear” performance.

Each following scene is set on Ernestine’s birthday at different years in her life: 39, 50, 80, 103 and more in between. We meet Matt (Chiké Johnson),  Ernestine’s love interest from her teenage years to middle-age. We also watch Ernestine’s son Billy (Samuel B. Jackson)   live a life of his own. With every dimming of the lights years and decades fly by.

Performed on Broadway last year, “Birthday Candles” takes place in Grand Rapids, Mich., where its playwright Noah Haidle is from. The Midwestern setting manifests in the play’s homey setting and integral value of family.

A trailing chime sounds again and again as Ernestine gets older, accompanying the many characters that depart from her life. Yet, Haidle conveys these losses tenderly. Most of the cast play two or three roles. When one character leaves Ernestine, another role played by the same actor soon joins her again as a child or grandchild. 

These losses and reunions drew both delighted laughter and choking tears from the audience. Personally, I sobbed when Ernestine, suffering from dementia, sees the shadow of her dead son Billy in the face of a stranger — played by the same actor who played Billy. The way actors play multiple roles reassures us that those who love us and we love will always be with us in some way. 

Throughout the highs and lows of the play, the cast creates an actual cake onstage: gathering ingredients, stirring and baking them in the oven. Despite arguments and tragedies, the characters return to the practice each scene. Everyone in the family remembers the recipe. It’s all real, too. By the end of the show, the cast pulls a fluffy golden cake out of the oven. 

As a whole, the production is emotionally and aesthetically beautiful. From the diverse and talented cast to the out-of-this-world stage design (it resembles a kitchen island floating in the sky), the show effortlessly connects the details of reality and meaning of love inside the endless cosmos. The costume changes show a clear distinction between the multiple roles the actors play, though there is poetry in the repetition and reprise throughout generations. 

As Ernestine finally steps off the stage into the starlit cosmos to join her family, the smell of golden butter cake gradually wafts into the audience. It reminds us all that though our hours in this life are not limitless, they can certainly be beautiful.

“Birthday Candles” began its run Sep. 7 and will close Oct 9. 

Email: [email protected]  

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