Theater is artificial, a construct that exaggerates a feeling or a moment in order to illuminate it. In theater, the same people repeat the same words, following the same movements time after time, which certainly doesn’t feel like reality. Actually, life is very much like that, but never in so controlled an environment, never entirely an entity unto itself. Staged theater must somehow acknowledge its deception and simultaneously conjure reality, and every production depends on its director’s sense of balance to emphasize one factor over the other, to give each a turn or to weigh them equally.
Greg John-son, in directing the first show of this year’s slimmed-down Broadway in the Rockies series at MCT, masters such a balance with On Golden Pond. He demurs to the artificiality of the stage world, yet employs it beautifully for his own purposes.
Ernest Thompson’s play is about Ethel and Norman, a couple married 45 years, returning to their beloved summer house in Maine for their 48th summer. In greeting the pleasures of all that is familiar, they reflect on their past, betray their long-held patterns and ponder their estranged daughter, who makes a command appearance for her father’s 80th birthday. The daughter brings her new boyfriend and his teenaged son, who then stays on another month while the daughter and beau flee to Europe. Thompson’s play has fondness written all over it, and could have benefited by a great deal less, but the cast knows what to do, and even though they find themselves in situations of comfortable predictability (to us), they pursue their characters in earnest.
David Ackroyd as Norman pulls off old coot and codger with dignity and without a fuss, and his irritability, self-centeredness and wit all seem to belong thoroughly to him, rather than belonging to a type. He is flawless in interpretation and makes this character his own, really his. He shares Norman with the audience but has immersed himself so that the audience, watching him, can drift away from its own world, the world outside. He has a magic partner in Dawn Didawick as Ethel, the pragmatic romantic, if such a thing exists. Didawick flutters around the intimate living room of the cottage, designed by Brian Harms, where she dusts, fluffs and tidies, all with the unconscious precision of a woman who has moved through these paces every day for 50 years. Her voice sings with sweet worry. Norman is obsessed with the idea of his approaching death and retreats to the safety of his armchair, while Ethel pushes her horizons out over her lake, watching her loons, batting at her mosquitoes, picking her berries. Real, painful, difficult life happens between these moments, and Johnson never lets these expert actors falter as they do the same thing over and over again.
Lindy Coon rushes in with uptight discomfort as the daughter they haven’t seen in a long while. She has a crisp archness that suits Chelsea perfectly, and she seems as comfortable and uncomfortable on the set—nicely appointed with the little meaningless knick-knacks of ancient summers—as a real daughter would feel in a home that once housed her childhood. She brings Bill the dentist, played by Rick Martino, who shows what is now becoming the show’s trademark balance as he jousts with Norman. Martino makes Bill never quite ridiculous, but sure enough an outsider. Rafe Herron plays Bill’s son with an admirable ease that will only get more expansive throughout the run. Completing the cast, Brian Massman, in a breathtaking transformation from The Pirates of Penzance’s Major-General to New England brick, is the comic mailman who lingers in the past with bittersweet humor. Any production is lucky to have him.
On Golden Pond is about repetition, about the timeless reenactment of family ways that define us. Ethel and Chelsea still know their old camp dances in their bones. Ethel still talks to her old, adored doll. And Norman and Ethel still love each other no matter what. The appearance of the child has granted Norman a second chance for the fatherhood at which he failed in the first round, and Ackroyd allows his glowing old ember to spark, carrying Norman from defeat to triumph over the course of the evening. Johnson makes all transformation so nimble that the audience never has time to consider the artifice in all this, the very thing that makes this set-up a play.
Last year, Broadway in the Rockies presented three shows, each one fairly ambitious. MCT has narrowed its reach this year, scaling back wisely to guard its resources as it builds its audience. On Golden Pond is sure to please, sure to charm of a summer night, and presented professionally with equity actors. It’s pleasing to realize that this level of professionalism originates here in Missoula, with a seasoned director who has given this town productions innumerable, and presumably will continue to do so. Johnson helps keep theater real.