Bay City Players Gaze Into the Generational and Existential Nuances of Aging

    icon Feb 28, 2018
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On Golden Pond made its Broadway debut back in 1979 and won two Tony Awards for its 2005 revival, but is probably best known from the Oscar-award winning film starring Katherine Hepburn and the father/daughter team of Henry & Jane Fonda, which author Emma Thompson specifically wrote the screen adaption for, creating its own set of challenges for the creative team at Bay City Players busily striving to sculpt their own nuances into the production, which will run from March 9-11 & 15-18.

Such challenges are welcomed with open arms for Director Jeff List, who received his PhD in Theatre from The University of Kansas in 2015 and presently has two dozen directing credits under his belt; and most recently finished playing the role of Mr. Van Daan in Pit & Balcony’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank, which he says was an immensely rewarding and emotional experience. 

The plot focuses on aging couple Ethel and Norman Thayer, who spend each summer at their home on a lake called Golden Pond. During the year the story takes place, they are visited by daughter Chelsea with her fiancé Billy Ray and his son Billy Ray Jr. The play explores the often-turbulent relationship Chelsea shared with her father growing up, and the difficulties faced by a couple in the twilight years of a long marriage.

“My passion for theatre comes from telling and showing stories that matter and say something important,” comments List. “In the case of On Golden Pond, we’re pulling a lot of our efforts together to make sure we tell Norman and Ethel’s story. While each character has his and her own perspective upon life, every scene begins and ends with Ethel and Norman. In the film version, more focus goes into Norman’s other relationships with Chelsea and Billy. While those relationships are important to the play, to my mind Norman’s relationship with Ethel structures the entire play.”  

When asked about the thematic qualities On Golden Pond possesses, distinguishing it within the lexicon of American theatre, and which as a Director Jeff is striving to focus upon, he zeros-in on the fundamental power of the narrative: “I think On Golden Pond contributes to a candid discussion of aging that we weren’t having at the time it was written.  We know more about the process of Alzheimer’s Disease now, but are still often fearful to talk about it, let alone face it.”

Indeed, this is undoubtedly one of On Golden Pond’s biggest strengths: for as you glimpse the existential terror beneath the bluff bravado of Norman as Alzheimer’s shrouds his consciousness, even as he is saying something savagely cutting or clever, a sudden slackening of the jaw, drawing back of the shoulders, or glazing of the eyes betrays his inescapable sense of a waiting darkness, which in turn requires tightly honed acting talent to fully convey.

In terms of casting, List assembled a veritable ‘Dream Team’ possessing both the depth and range of experience required to properly render this production; coupled with a theatrical reputation and name recognition for regional audiences throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region akin to that of the Fonda’s on the national stage.

“Our leads roles of Norman and Ethel Thayer are portrayed by real-life married couple Leeds and Margaret Bird,notes Jeff.  “Leeds has been involved in theatre for over fifty years and directed and acted in the area community theatres for over forty. Leeds has enough orneriness and smart aleck-ness within him to succeed as Norman. Margaret has been doing community theatre as long as Leeds and brings a grace and dignity befitting her role. I could not be happier to be working with them. Plus, my mother was in Leeds' English Class at Bay City Handy School in the mid-to-late 1960s.”

Kristie Moe has been singing and acting for years.  She showed a real connection to Chelsea that made the casting decision easy, while Gabe Thompson showed a remarkable ability to take direction. He also has a confidence and charm that will bring Billy Ray, Jr. to life.  Ed Borus just got done with Calendar Girls at Bay City Players and was impressive in his role. Through his acting, he brings a simplicity and earnest character to Charlie. He has a great laugh, too. Todd Little showed me an innocent side to Bill Ray during auditions that I hadn't read before. Todd recently moved back to the area after performing in community theatre in other parts of the country. Finally, Cheri Garrett made strong choices during auditions. It is so easy working with her because she is comfortable trying things and taking acting risks.”

Ironically, the biggest challenge Jeff cites with sculpting this production for the regional stage centers around some of the cultural biases that existed back in 1980.  “Some of the social and cultural ideas expressed in the play may have seemed innocuous in 1980, but don't really fit today. We have to keep it set in its time because our views and language as a society have changed. Leeds has done a great job making sure that Norman is endearing, even if some of his views and words appear outdated.”

With this being said, what lessons does Jeff feel that On Golden Pond delivers to audiences today that still makes it so appealing and relevant? “Growing old gracefully is much easier said than done. Norman struggles with his mind, his body, and his relationships because they change as he ages. These are not easy things to see and hear, but they are part of life.”

“Memories are important. Simple. Maybe trite. But true. Once we do something, once we face some experience big or small, the only thing left is the memory of it. We keep things like pictures and souvenirs, but those are just ways to help us remember.”

“Norman struggles to keep his memories, Chelsea works to get past her memories, and Billy embraces every opportunity to make memories.”

Bay City Players production of ‘On Golden Pond’ will run from March 9-11 and 15-18. Curtain is at 7:30 pm except for Sunday Matinees at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $20.00 for adults and $10.00 for students and available by phoning 989-893-5555 or visiting baycityplayers.com



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