In New York, where emotions are inhibited and true feelings are seen as signs of weakness, Noah Haidle’s play “Birthday Candles” was dismissed by most critics when it opened on Broadway last year.
I was different. Almost as strong as the one I have.
To me, “Birthday Candles” is why people go to the theater; to think about their families, contemplate their past romantic mistakes, downplay the demons of their future, and communicate with those they have loved and lost. The one-set, 100-minute play, which focuses on the life of an ordinary Michigan woman from Grand Rapids, whose ages range from 17 to 100, is about the painful and exciting search for patterns in the universe and the endless desire of man. For everything to make sense, even in the face of increasing casualties.
And, having some familiarity with Haidle’s circumstances, I would add that the play is also a beautiful tribute to a writer’s mother, as rich in its complexity and affection as any similar work. I think my reaction to this script, having watched it twice so far, is so intense that I feel like the playwright is very strong in the play. You could say they’ve always been that way, and that’s true to a degree, but that opened a vein with this particular piece, despite its craftsmanship’s ability to disguise itself as some literary.
In New York, “Birthday Candles” did not benefit Chicago theater’s Lunt and Fontanne’s Kate Fry and Tim Kane, a real-life married couple on the Northlight Theater stage. Thoughtful direction by Jessica Thebus.
Fry, as good an actor as any with a bigger national name, plays the lead role of Ernestine, a rock-hard woman surrounded by a needy and sometimes volatile family; Many of these families fail to see that he is right when he insists that he hurry. their loved one stops every year on his birthday, “claims” at that moment and really sees each other.
Eventually people leave. Halfway through the forest.
Some die unhappily. A husband is proven unfaithful. Some people’s understanding improves over time. Others don’t do this. In the end, the play suggests that we are left tossed in the wind with only our memories, the sum of our experiences, and our questions.
One stays long for Ernestine, a quiet admirer, a true neighbor boy. This is Kenneth, played by Kane. It’s a nice Groundhog Day-like gig for the actor, as he gets to propose to his wife again and again, and at Wednesday’s performance, the two were definitely delving deeper into their long marriage. Or so it seemed, that’s all you really know.
Thebus has made some interesting and workable choices in a production that is much less comedic and goes much deeper than the New York premiere. Although the play spans decades, Haidle wrote the actual time periods only vaguely so as not to distract from what he wanted to write about. Thebus honors this, and although the actors have aged a bit as have their characters, nothing there is distracting. There are no tricks. Just facts.
What a delightful little show this is, enhanced by Cyd Blakewell (who really impressed me), Samuel B. Jackson, Chike Johnson, and an attentive cast whose enthusiasm constantly stands up to any nasty menace from Corrbette Pasko.
“Birthday Candles” is about mental health, mortality and survival, risking your heart (reminds me of “Once”) and finding your place — a lifelong struggle, experience teaches us. It’s a personal piece, but you’d swear it’s about you.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Birthday Candles” (4 stars)
When: Until October 8
Where: Northlight Theater at North Shore Performing Arts Center, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Working time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Tickets: $49-$89 at 847-673-6300 and www.northlight.org