Playwright Ernest Thompson paints a warm portrait of aging couple Norman and Ethel Thayer in his 1979 sentimental comedy, "On Golden Pond."
"It's wonderful to see the relationship and how loving it is," says Presila Quinby, who plays Ethel Thayer in Next Stage Repertory Theater's production this weekend at the Craterian Theater.
"The portrait is of their whole love, not love in spite of their gibing each other, because that's all part of it," she says. "It's the dark and the light, the loving and the gibing."
Eric Hagerman plays opposite Quinby as Norman Thayer in the cast of half-dozen actors, directed by Doug Warner.
It's May in the story when the Thayers return to their summer home on Golden Pond for the 48th year. Norman, a retired professor nearing 80, suffers from heart palpitations and a failing memory, but is as sharp-tongued and observant as ever. Ethel, 10 years younger, delights in all the small things that enrich their life together.
"I think of the play as more of Norman's show," Quinby says. "I think most people do, and I think Ernest Thompson was trying to paint a portrait of his parents — or some couple he was related to or had a lot of experience with. His father or not, there were issues between Thompson and whoever inspired Norman's character.
"Of course, 30 years ago I played the daughter, Chelsea, and I thought she was the main character," Quinby laughs. "I think the playwright painted himself in the character of Chelsea. He made her into kind of a foil. But predominantly the story is about the parents, and of the two of them, it's predominantly about Norman.
"So it's interesting for me to come back and play the mother, and I see there's a lot more to her character. It's easy for a younger generation, represented by Chelsea, to see Ethel as an enabler by letting Norman get away with being cranky, morbid and difficult to get along with, but I'm not choosing to play her that way."
Quinby sees Ethel as a strong, smart woman who's in between a rock and a hard spot. She loves Norman. She loves her family. Norman's birthday is approaching, and a visit is expected from their estranged daughter, Chelsea, played by Meagan Kirby, and her new fiance, Bill Ray, played by Jonathan Oles, sometime during the summer.
"To her credit, Ethel doesn't let Norman walk all over her. She lets him know when he's overboard. She can see the good in him, and she loves him in spite of his rough qualities. When you join someone for life, you love the whole person. You wouldn't be able to enjoy the good aspects unless the bad were there with them. There's contrast."
Ethel's dry wit matches Norman's. One can imagine them when they were young and how they met. Next Stage Repertory has created background context for the couple in its production, Quinby says. He was a college professor. She was likely an upper-class New Englander whose parents educated their daughters, though it wasn't necessarily for more than to find a husband.
"She appreciates her husband's wit and sarcasm and can match him gibe for gibe," Quinby says. "I think that's one of the things that connected them in the beginning."
Quinby herself is married to an artist: jazz guitarist Bil Leonhart.
"Oh, man," she says. "I was blindsided by this play. We were about halfway into the rehearsal process before I realized that Norman Thayer and my husband are the same age.
"My husband also has health issues. Bil is a cancer survivor; Norman has a near-death experience in the play. Since Bil's cancer, I don't think a day goes by I don't wonder what the hell I am going to do when he's gone. Going through the play's drama, Norman collapses, Ethel panics, not knowing what to do, trying to call the hospital. All that stuff is very close to the bone."
Throughout the play's dialogue, Norman talks of dying — shouldn't bother getting a fishing license, shouldn't bother starting a new novel. As a determined counter to his comments, Ethel lives like there's always going to be a tomorrow. So when there is a scare, she panics because she's not braced herself.
"It's the opposite with Bil and I," Quinby says. "He doesn't think about it or talk about it at all. He's driving, he's playing music, he's performing, he's out digging, you know."
Ethel and Norman counterbalance each other with their humor. She uses it to prod him along and get him out of his bad moods. He, of course, loves to play head games with people, to a fault, Quinby says.
"It's how Norman entertains himself, and it's entertaining for the audience," she says.
Especially with Chelsea's fiance, Bill Ray, who is frightened by the woods. A city boy, the outdoors are something he's experienced only from horror movies. His 13-year-old son, played by Daschel Bender, finds the countryside around Golden Pond fun and cool. He doesn't care about the bugs, nor is he intimidated by Norman.
"I think part of Norman hoped for a son," Quinby says. "I think he related to Chelsea as a son when she was a child. Somewhere way back, he got the idea that she didn't like him, probably because she wasn't male and didn't understand him. He just sort of put her in her mother's charge. As soon as Ethel tells Chelsea she's got a chip on her shoulder and has to knock it off because she's making herself miserable, Chelsea realizes it's true. She tells her father she wants to be his friend, and Norman is good with that.
"It's an interesting story, and I don't think it's that uncommon," she says. "Looking at a story like 'On Golden Pond' is going back to when genders were entrenched and fathers had trouble relating to daughters.
"Chelsea looks out the window and sees Norman with her soon-to-be stepson on the boat together, and says, 'It reminds me of me back then, but you really lose a lot of points if you throw up when you try and put the worm on the hook.' "
Set and sound design are by Warner; lighting is by Brad Nelson.