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Theater review: Strong cast finds ‘Pond’s’ essence

Norman and Ethel Thayer have been visiting their Maine vacation cottage on a lake called Golden Pond every summer for nearly 50 years. Their marriage remains steadfast, but Norman, now in his late 70s, is starting to lose his memory, forgetting names and losing his way in the woods he had previously known for decades.

The Thayers’ grown daughter Chelsea has decided to come visit the house on Golden Pond for the first time since her adolescence, but she has a surprise: Not only is she bringing along her new boyfriend, a dentist named Bill Ray, but also his 13-year-old son. When Bill and Chelsea decide to take a summer vacation in Europe, Norman and Ethel agree to let Bill Jr. stay with them in Maine.

Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond,” which originally premiered on Broadway in 1979, is a classic drama and a simple story, one that doesn’t have a strong overarching plotline but is, rather, a series of scenes depicting the day-to-day life in the small lakeside cottage, as characters come and go and problems of the past are dredged up, for better and for worse.

The play has been performed countless times since its debut, but arguably its most famous iteration is the 1981 feature film adaptation, starring Oscar winners Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda as the Thayers. It’s always a challenge to present a play when its cinematic equivalent is so prevalent in the minds of the audience, but the Spokane Civic Theatre’s Firth J. Chew Studio Theatre production of “On Golden Pond,” directed by Wes Deitrick, finds its own voice.

Because the story is so slight, it requires the actors to do most of the heavy lifting, and luckily the entire ensemble is terrific, finding the naturalism in their characters that sells so many of the play’s small but revelatory moments of confrontation, revelation and acceptance.

All of the adult characters, even the minor ones, are hung up on their younger selves: Norman (J.P. O’Shaughnessy), too stubborn to admit to Ethel (Marianne McLaughlin) that his mental faculties are beginning to fade; Charlie the mailman (Brad Thompson), still holding a candle for Chelsea; Bill Sr. (Andrew Biviano), desperate for Norman’s approval; and Chelsea (Kris Crocker), still reeling from a destructive first marriage and the resentment she feels toward her withdrawn father, who has more of a connection with young Billy (Jaeden Ives-Crow) than he ever had with her.

There is certainly enough light comedy here to keep the material from devolving into full-on melodrama, but there remains an air of sadness, a certain feeling of loss and regret just below the surface, that gives “On Golden Pond” its dramatic weight.

But the best individual scenes in “On Golden Pond” are the ones that bookend the play, quiet passages between Norman and Ethel as they arrive at and then leave Golden Pond. The conflicting tones of these respective scenes – the opening is mostly comical, as Norman battles with the operator on the opposite end of their malfunctioning telephone, and the closer is more bittersweet, when a health scare forces Ethel to consider that any summer at Golden Pond could be their last. O’Shaughnessy and McLaughlin find just the right tone in these scenes, a fusion of humor and heartbreak that imbues the production with just the right amount of poignancy and believability.

It’s that balancing act between melancholy and uplift that has made “On Golden Pond” so enduring, and as Norman and Ethel bid adieu to the birds on the lake, we’re left with a sense of natural renewal: As time marches on and the summers come and go, the loons will always be there on Golden Pond, welcoming us back.