|Joe Silver, Anita Zijdemans Boudreau, Patti Speight, and Jason Weed.|
By Tina Arth
Theatre in the Grove closes its 2015-16 season with Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond, a beautiful love story thinly disguised as a terribly funny take on dysfunctional families. It’s an inspired choice for a community theater – small cast, incredibly meaty roles, diverse age range, and a story that completely ensnares the audience from the opening of Act I to the end of Act II. For two (blissfully air-conditioned) hours Friday night, the audience was transported to the Thayer family’s summer home on Maine’s Golden Pond. We were given an extended peek into the world of aging fathers, disaffected daughters, alienated teens, buttoned-down boyfriends, and a subtle but intense love affair between two old marrieds nearing the end of their time together. The script is smart, witty, and surprisingly unpredictable in places; at the end, we have learned no Great Truths, but we have seen how many paths can lead to family reconciliation.
The story is much like that of the enormously popular 1981 film. Norman and Ethel Thayer (Joe Silver and Anita Zijdemans Boudreau) arrive at their isolated summer home (perhaps for the last time – Norman is turning 80) in the Maine woods. Norman seems to be suffering from the early stages of dementia, but while his memory may be fading, his tongue is as sharp as ever. Ethel’s energy and cheer are heavily taxed by Norman’s quirks, but she soldiers on and manages to maintain her sense of humor and her wonder at the beauty of Golden Pond. The arrival of their divorced, childless middle-aged daughter Chelsea (Patti Speight), her boyfriend Bill (Jason Weed), and Billy Jr. (Sam Dennis) is initially disruptive, but when Chelsea and Bill take off for a month in Europe, leaving Billy with the Thayers, Norman’s world quickly changes. Norman and Billy quickly bond, each finding in the other something that they had been missing – the change in Norman is so dramatic that Ethel remarks, “We should have rented a 13-year-old boy years ago!” When Chelsea and Bill return (now married), Norman and his daughter are finally able to reconcile after years of conflict.
While the story arc seems to follow the turbulence between Chelsea and Norman, it is the power of Ethel and Norman’s relationship that really tells the tale. Joe Silver creates an utterly authentic picture of an intellectually powerful man rejecting the inevitable losses of aging. His timing and deadpan delivery of a series of one-liners fuel the comic element of the play, but he also captures his character’s essential vulnerability – the one scene where he truly lets his guard down and shares his limitless love for Ethel is utterly moving. Anita Zijdemans Boudreau works in perfect tandem with Silver, creating a kind of steel-cored angel to prop up her cranky and disintegrating spouse. Her sense of wonder at the beauty of their environment shows how she replenishes her spirit, and in one key scene with Speight she also displays sparks of genuine anger that round out her persona.
Speight’s “Chelsea” is a careful balance between bitterness, whining, and flashes of determination as she creates a forty-something woman finally ready to reinvent not only her relationship with her father, but her whole approach to life. Sam Dennis is perfectly cast as “Billy” – he is snotty, snarky, and smart enough to stand up to Norman, but still needy – in other words, a classic 13-year-old boy on teetering on the edge between childhood and manhood.
Director Gavin Knittle has brought together a skilled group of actors with just the right chemistry to bring life to a tale of love, loss, and hope. The cast’s ability to deliver sharp comedy and serious themes makes it a show not to be missed.
On Golden Pond plays at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through June 19th with performances at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and matinees at 2:30 pm on Sundays.