I wouldn’t be surprised if Noah Haidle wrote Birthday Candles, which opened Wednesday at Northlight Theatre, to win a bar bet: Craft a deeply moving play about a woman’s life in which nothing extraordinary happens.

Set it in her Grand Rapids kitchen and include all the usual milestones: births, illnesses, deaths, graduations, celebrations, marriages, infidelities, divorces, remarriages, career changes, dreams sometimes realized but mostly deferred and, always, traditions that help keep the memories of these people and moments alive. Even if you are destined to end up in a retirement home with a view of the freeway for your efforts.

Just like your life. And mine. And all watched over by a goldfish named Atman (Sanskrit for the eternal self). Only, goldfish are short-lived and reset their memories every three seconds, so there will be more than a hundred Atmans watching this woman’s life unfold from the kitchen table over more than eight decades, living in the eternal now.

If Birthday Candles was the product of such a bet, then Haidle has come up a big winner. Although it’s possible to imagine a maudlin or mundane staging of this play, the Northlight production sings. That’s thanks in large part to director Jessica Thebus and actor Kate Fry, who delivers a deeply felt, urgently emotional, beautifully realized performance as Ernestine Ashworth, who we check in with every year on her birthday starting at age 17 and ending past age 100.

There’s plenty of engaging drama in these quotidian events of a life, but Haidle’s point is to remind us to stop long enough as we experience similar milestones to take stock–to appreciate, in the resonant words of Stevie Nicks, what we have and what we’ve lost–to create and pass along family traditions, rituals and oft-told stories, to be more like Ernestine and less like Atman.

Whatever point on their life journeys audience members are passing through when they see Birthday Candles, they will find something, probably many things, in Haidle’s work that strums a deep emotional chord and shakes them out of their day-to-day routine. In many cases, this will lead to cathartic tears and perhaps an attempt to slow their perceptions of fast-paced real life long enough to savor the fleeting time with the people closest to them. And this, it seems, is a central role of theater.

Haidle, Thebus, Fry and the other actors take on this sacred task with great care, in particular Timothy Edward Kane, Fry’s real-life husband and her character’s lifelong best friend, Kenneth, who makes it the work of decades to nurture and grow their affectionate bond. To paraphrase a long-running social media trope, find someone who loves you the way Kenneth loves Ernestine.

To be sure, Haidle and Fry make Ernestine, whom we meet as a comically earnest teen, easy to love, our affection for her growing over the years as she takes care of her family through moments light and tragic and provides them the series of thoughtful traditions that mean they are truly home.

One more note on Fry: Her performance here and recently in A Distinct Society at Writers Theatre and The Cherry Orchard at the Goodman showcase an actor with astonishing range and a deft touch for material ranging from comic to tragic. Chicago is lucky to have her.

Other members of this strong cast–Cyd Blakewell (Alice/Madeline/Ernie), Chike Johnson (Matt/William), Samuel B. Jackson (Billy/John) and Corrbette Pasko (Joan/Alex/Beth)–play characters in different generations of the family, ably leaning into Haidle’s called-back lines and themes to show that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes.

Birthday Candles is the sleeper must-see show of the season. Do yourself a favor and go. But remember to bring tissues, and maybe someone you love.

Birthday Candles runs through October 8 at Northlight Theatre.

For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.

Photo by Michael Brosilow