The loons are out on Golden Pond — and so is cantankerous octogenarian Norman Thayer and his devoted and indulgent wife Ethel.
The Ernest Thompson play about the power of memory, the need for reconciliation, and the decline of old age was turned into a beloved Oscar-winning film. On Golden Pond is now a stirring and heartfelt Central Alberta Theatre production that opened on Friday at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre.
Anyone who loved the 1981 movie really should see this play, directed by Tara Rorke, before it winds up on April 6.
While it’s often hard to do heartwarming without drifting off into sappy and sentimental, the strong cast of this production, buoyed by Rorke’s focused direction and Thompson’s blunt and salty script, manages to avoid these pitfalls to deliver performances that feel believable and true.
Everything hangs on the time-tested relationship between Norman and Ethel, a loving couple in their twilight years, so it’s fortunate these roles are played by seasoned CAT veterans Keith Ainscough and Dale Latam.
While both of these community actors have been good in other productions, their chemistry is so potent in this play that together they are a revelation.
Ainscough is wonderfully crusty as Norman, who fears he is spending his last summer at the cabin on the lake and hides his vulnerability and worries about memory loss behind a sardonic and testy persona. Ainscough makes Norman tick because he understands the many facets of the retired professor, who practically becomes a different person, depending on who he’s talking to.
Norman is a teasing teddy bear with Ethel, a sarcastic eye-ball-roller with the “dimwitted” mailman Charlie (Matthew Taylor) who used to date his daughter, Chelsea, and an out-and-out jerk to her new fiancé, Bill.
The scene in which dentist Bill (played by Konstantin Vorosmarty) uneasily asks Norman whether it’s all right if he sleeps with Chelsea under his roof is so painful it’s hilarious.
Norman does everything possible to heighten Bill’s discomfort.
The person who brings out Norman’s best is Bill’s son, Billy (played with fewer ‘issues’ and more humour by Cole Brown). The 13-year-old who spends the summer at the Thayer’s cottage comes to appreciate Norman’s prowess at fishing, his prickly humour and stories of the past.
Latam’s Ethel tries to be a softening buffer between Norman and the rest of the world — especially between him and their daughter Chelsea, who can’t forgive her father for making her feel she could never live up to his expectations.
Chelsea, played by Angel Paulsen, learns from her mother that she must forgive Norman and reconcile with him before it’s too late.
It’s Ethel’s deep love for her family, her lakeside cottage and its accompanying memories, that give this play its strong sense of nostalgia. And Latam makes these feelings palpable.
While her character brushes off Norman’s obsessive talk about death, in the last scene it becomes clear that Ethel is not immune from the fear of having to live without him.
Ainscough and Latam play this scene with such natural, loving familiarity that it’s easy to believe that this couple has been happily married for nearly 50 years.
While Thursday’s dress rehearsal of On Golden Pond contained a few slow patches, moments in this last scene made the production seem as magical as the Thayers’ view of the loons on the glittering lake.