If the success of the The Woodford Theatre's latest production hinges on evoking the spirit of a beloved, wooded lake retreat, then Joe Ferrell's production of On Golden Pond nails it.
Revisiting the shores of Maine's Golden Pond is certainly a welcome respite from the gray Kentucky winter, and audiences are transported there instantly thanks to Dawn Connerly's sweeping, rustic set design. A scenic backdrop painted by well known local artist Damon Farmer earned spontaneous applause during the curtain speech by Trish Clark, Woodford Theatre's artistic and executive director.
But creating the atmosphere is only part of the equation for success, particularly when it comes to mounting a show that audiences might know better from the 1980s film starring Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn.
Eric Johnson and Lisa Thomas make the roles their own in a tender production that humorously and poignantly sheds light on the complexities of intimate relationships as they change over time.
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Having spent 43 summers together on Golden Pond, Norman (Johnson) and Ethel (Thomas) have grown from young lovers to parents to retirees in their golden years. At 75, Norman is more than a decade older than Ethel and is starting to exhibit the beginning of serious health problems with his heart and memory. A surprise visit from their 42-year-old daughter Chelsea, her fiancé and his 13 year old son leads to a burst of vitality in Norman, ultimately healing troubled parts of the family's past.
Ferrell has a deft interpretation of Ernest Thompson's script, which on the surface feels deceptively simple and un-dramatic. Here's a couple doing totally ordinary things together — fishing, picking strawberries, killing bugs — but beneath the ordinary lies the patterns and connective tissue that define long-term relationships.
Thomas is particularly moving as Ethel. She might appear to be light-hearted, making cookies and jokes, but Ethel is doing a lot of hard work beneath the surface, emotionally buoying Norman in stealthy ways cleverly executed to seem ordinary. Her humor and her drive to keep the couple active are conveyed robustly, but the way in which Thomas wordlessly conveys the worry Ethel is feeling is impressive. I was reminded of the many women I've known who are the family nucleus, playing caregiver, philosopher and clown at different intervals, depending on the family's emotional needs.
Johnson has a similar task in his portrayal of Norman, whose gruff demeanor and dark humor belie his genuinely loving and fun nature. His transformation from resigned frailty to renewed vigor between act one and two felt authentic and uplifting. Still, it remains difficult to see the cracks in his veneer, like in his stiff and emotionally aloof response to Chelsea as she reaches out to heal their relationship. Only in vulnerable moments with Ethel do we see him feel safe enough to reveal himself all the way. The emotional scene in the play's final moments, when Norman suffers a health scare, is one of the most beautifully rendered moments of the show because we see a glimpse into the couple's intimate romance.
Authenticity is really the name of the game in Ferrell's production, which doesn't bang you over the head with any agenda but strives to get out of the way and show the audience how ordinary and extraordinary growing older together can be.