When On Golden Pond was released in1981, those in the baby-boomer generation could see their parents' and grandparents' struggles in the aging protagonists played by Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn.
Now, they begin to see themselves.
That's one reason Woodford County Theatre artistic and executive director Trish Clark decided to produce Ernest Thompson's classic play about a senior couple's love, struggles and evolving relationships as they share their golden years together.
"I felt like it would be something that our older patrons and their children would enjoy," Clark says, "especially with this baby boomer generation. There's a tsunami of aging people and their children trying to figure out how to help them."
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Clark says that when she selects shows each season, she tries to include a wide variety of shows that would appeal to various segments of the theater's audience, including a significant portion of patrons approaching retirement or already retired.
Clark herself is among them. At 61, she is a grandmother, a senior leader in the arts community and a retired school teacher. Last year, her mother passed away after struggling with dementia. She says reflecting on life changes and rites of passage in her own life prompted her to take a deeper look at On Golden Pond.
"It's a story about family," Clark says, "about how relationships can change as we age and what we are willing to do to keep our relationships going as those changes occur."
The play centers on 75-year-old Norman and his younger wife, Ethel, as they spend their last summers at their lake cottage in Maine. Their daughter, Chelsea, an only child, arrives with her fiance and his 13-year-old son. Chelsea's strained relationship with her father, Norman's relationship with his future step-grandson, Ethel's attempt to keep everyone happy and healthy, all are complex threads of changing relationships that Clark thinks audiences will recognize in their own lives.
"I love in this story how Ethel works so hard to keep Norman buoyed up and trying to think positively," Clark says. "When you see the show, you'll see her making real strong efforts to make everything OK with everybody, but her specific love for him and patience for him and trying to hold on, it's just a really sweet thing."
The boomers of 1981 probably identified with Chelsea, the couple's daughter, who faces her own major life changes: getting married, becoming a parent and grappling with her difficult relationship with her ailing father. Today, it is their children facing many of Chelsea's dilemmas.
"She has to be the one to take that step to heal that relationship," Clark says of Chelsea's strained relationship with Norman.
The play, which Thompson cut from its original 1979 version, is directed by one of Clark's longtime colleagues and mentors, Joe Ferrell.
"Joe was my college professor, and he's been a mentor to me for a long time," Clark says. "We have both — as friends and colleagues and people who love to tell stories — we've talked about aging and how we've changed over the years."
Part of Ferrell's directorial vision for On Golden Pond is informed by his rugged boyhood in Montana, spending time with family and friends in places in nature not unlike Golden Pond.
"We swam in ice-cold lakes and streams, saw all kinds of wildlife (including bears!), ate a lot, talked a lot, and surely laughed a lot," Ferrell writes in his director's notes. "We also discovered much about one another and, of course, ourselves."
"In fact, I think that what was most important about these sojourns was the opportunity to experience both family and friends in a setting that was divorced from the everyday life that waited for us back home," Ferrell writes. "I remember much of the time spent these summers as indeed 'golden,' filled with sun, silliness, soulful reflection, unstoppable laughter, and also disappointment and struggle. I would not trade these life-fulfilling times for a summer spent in Disneyland."