Regional Reviews: Chicago
The teenager with the cosmic preoccupation with the metaphysical and the often strangely poetic syntax is Ernestine in Noah Haidle's absolutely brilliant Birthday Candles, which comes to Chicago after a 2022 Broadway premiere. We meet her–always on her birthday–again and again in this fast-forward time trip of a play, from 17 to 107, and we witness her journey through life. Like life, what we see is sometimes hilarious, sometimes unexpected, sometimes philosophical, sometimes upsetting, and sometimes deeply sad.
This play utterly wrecked me. I have not cried so much and so long at a play in I don't know how long. And what's equally incredible is that this also happens to be one of the funniest plays you could wish to see. Seeing how Haidle manages that trick–often in the same scene or even the same line–is enough to recommend that you hurry out to Skokie to see the magic for yourself, to see what theatre can be and what it was meant to be. But there is much more.
The actors, all but two, play multiple roles in varying ages from childhood to old age. Director Jessica Thebus handles this both deftly and subtly: no one seems to be doing any kind of performance of age here; rather, they show us their ages through quiet micro-mannerisms. As Ernestine, the remarkable Kate Fry shares the joys, losses, loves, and frequent hilarity of simply living a life. Ernestine's life is not the one she dreams of as the seventeen-year-old who declares, with all of the chutzpah and unbridled passion of a teenager, "I am a rebel against the universe. I will wage war with the everyday. I am going to surprise God." Rather, it is pretty much a copy of her mother's life, so much so that Haidle often has the same dialogue come up again and again, generation after generation, as if to say, "This has all happened before, and it will happen again."
And it has. And it does.
The events of that first birthday party when she is seventeen reverberate throughout Ernestine's life. Some of it is by the character's design: she replicates, again and again, the ritual of baking that cake exactly as her mother (who dies before Ernestine is eighteen) showed her. She teaches the ritual and the accompanying lines to the generations to come, teaches them to encircle the "humble" ingredients (eggs, butter, flour, salt) with their hands and then to look deeply at them to "see atoms left over from creation." To see "stardust" in the ingredients for a golden yellow cake as they put all of their love into it.
The cake-baking ritual, though, is not the only element that is repeated. Seventeen-year-old Ernestine is auditioning to play "Queen Lear" (in a "feminist interpretation" of Shakespeare's tragedy). Lines from that play come up again and again, and Ernestine's great-granddaughter eventually plays the role in a remounting almost a century later. Other conversations repeat themselves over the generations, as if being in this Michigan household makes the dialogue mandatory. And maybe it does: it's easy to see it all as Haidle's examination of the ways in which we pass highlights from our lives to our children and to their children.
It isn't only the poetical elements that repeat, though. Every birthday–and, we assume, on many other occasions–Ernestine's next-door neighbor Kenneth (not "Ken" or "Kenny," please) comes into her kitchen like a clandestine version of Seinfeld's Kramer and inevitably scares the crap out of her. The first time we see him, he is carrying a present for her: a goldfish in a bowl that he has named "Atman," which Kenneth (played with perfectly open sincerity by Timothy Edward Kane) says is a Sanskrit word for "the divinity within yourself." We meet various Atmans throughout the play, as Ernestine keeps the fish "alive" by buying new ones whenever one dies. (The last one we meet is Atman 106.) She needs to hold on to the divinity within herself at least symbolically but perhaps also as a way to hold on to her mother. As for Kenneth, it's overwhelmingly clear from the start that he loves this girl he once practiced kissing with.
The other actors play various members of her family in a kind of longitudinal projection. Chiké Johnson plays Matt, the high school football player and friend who becomes Ernestine's husband. She insists to him that going to prom together will not result in sex or a baby–"No weddings or birthings or dyings not here, not me"–but, well, you know what they say about how to make God laugh: tell him your plans. Matt and Ernestine have two children, Billy (Samuel B. Jackson) and Madeline (Cyd Blakewell). Corrbette Pasko plays Joan, the very nervous young woman who can't keep secrets and constantly berates herself–and ends up marrying Billy. All of these cast members perfectly embody their characters, and the double- and triple-casting is yet another way that Haidle carries the family through the generations.
Births and deaths, both expected and unexpected, both sudden and slow, as well as the beginnings and endings of relationships punctuate the journey these characters make through lives that forever revolve around this home and Grand Rapids. There are arguments as well–the overly macho Matt, for instance, has a distaste for his son, who has struggled to find his place in the world. He isn't Kenneth's biggest fan either, partially because Kenneth is in love with his wife and partially because Kenneth, his science mind always engaged, says things like this to the goldfish: "You don't remember me because you are removed from the causal plane of existence and live in a place of stillness, quietly watching the drama of the world unfold." It is Kenneth, however, who ultimately speaks out loud the truth about this play as it reflects life: "There are those of us who believe that history is circular and that our every thought, word, and deed will recur eternally."
Circles are not limited to these repetitions in this play, however. Thebus and scenic designer Sotirios Livaditis have placed the entire kitchen set on a circular stage, and JR Lederle's lights and Andre Pluess's sound use that as a means of helping Thebus show that a character has left this earthly plain. (It's quite a lovely effect.) And, despite the play's extremely long timeline, no attempt is made–per the author's instructions–to use costuming to help the time pass, but Rachel Anne Healy's costumes feel perfect for the characters.
I tried to tell my daughter what this play is about last night, on our way back from Hamilton, but I ultimately decided that it is probably not possible to convey the joy, tears, laughter, anger, love, and everything else that make up this play. If you have witnessed the events of a long life–births, family celebrations, deaths, etc.–then you have an idea. But Haidle and Thebus make the universal extremely personal here, and there is no way to explain that except to tell you to come to experience the most perfect trip on life's roller coaster that the theatre can take you on. You will not regret it.
Birthday Candles runs through October 8, 2023, at Northlight Theatre, Skokie's North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie IL. For tickets and information, please visit northlight.org.