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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘On Golden Pond’ touches family sensitivities in Tisch Mills

Critic At Large

The Forst Inn Arts Collective

Play programs. (Warren Gerds)

TISCH MILLS, Wis. (WFRV) – Some plays have a more human and natural feel than others. Such is the case with “On Golden Pond.”

The gently-paced comedy/drama (with certain moments of emphasis on the drama) is running for seven more performances to Sept. 26 as another fine production of The Forst Inn Arts Collective.

“On Golden Pond” is soul-satisfying. You take to the characters, care for them.

That’s another way of saying the script, the setting, the atmosphere, the preparation and the acting are of quality.

Written by Ernest Thompson, “On Golden Pond” arrived in 1979. Much in its situations ripple today and – families being families and aging being aging – probably will ripple into many tomorrows.

Central are a couple, the wife pushing 70 and the husband arriving at 80 in the course of the play.

The two are spending their 48th summer on Golden Pond. It’s a little lake in Maine’s boondocks. With a little imagination, it could be Wisconsin. That backyard feel is one of the play’s attractions for a Northeastern Wisconsin audience.

Although they are old, Norman and Ethel Thayer are not done yet. However, Norman tends to wax morbid about death, saying such things as his mind and his body are in a tight race to see which fails first.

Norman is a literate sort. He is also a wise-cracker who enjoys baiting everybody. He seems to think he’s funny, and often others have a hard time seeing that, being that the humor is at their expense.

The teasing roles off Ethel while she carries on her love/hate affair with nature’s creatures in Maine’s up nort’. She revels in Golden Pond’s loons while engaging battle with bugs that bite.

Director Lisa Heili carefully guides the lovingly testy relationship between the couple, developed in detail by stage veterans Doug Landwehr and Vicki Svacina. The first scene may feel slow-mo by today’s quick-shift fad, but the pacing is a deliberate development of characters as they would appear in life. The naturalistic flow speaks closer to the truth to me.

Drama centers on the faulty dealings between Norman and daughter Chelsea (Elizabeth Szyman). She has kept her distance from her parents for years on end. Dad has been tough to please, seemingly always.

This sore spot is not clearly defined initially. A sense of it is given when Chelsea, a divorcee, arrives after not visiting for eight years with her boyfriend-dentist, Bill (Ian Wisneski), and his 13-year-old son, Billy (Elliott Lotto).

Norman engages in swordplay with father and son – the father over sleeping with Norman’s daughter, the son for being a bit of a cus-mouth. (Language rates a “PG” at times). In the parrying, Norman wins some, loses some.

Also on hand for visits is the merry, unmarried mailman (Bill Fricke), Chelsea’s gaffaw-stricken old flame from youth.

The set and items in it are characters, too. The “cabin” has the look and feel of a lived-in, well-used, memory-filled beloved place the couple has been comfy in for year upon year.

Basic setup for ‘On Golden Pond’ in the Forst Inn. (Warren Gerds)

The cast members – solid players familiar with performing – comfortably move in their characters.

Singling out:

Doug Landwehr does his usual meticulous job in creating a person who people might not necessarily like. This is a keen performance.

Vicki Svacina is not near Ethel’s age but fits the aura for being a foil to Norman and, at just the right moment, to Chelsea.

Elizabeth Szyman seizes the key scene – a toe-to-toe with no-so-dear-ol’-Dad – and pours on the emotion. She knows what-for on stage.

Bill Fricke is a gas as happily dense Charlie, taking a big leap from previous characters and thus showing range,

Ian Wisneski has a hurrah sequence. He’s been playing a milquetoast, such as being fearful of imagined bears at the door. Then comes a beautiful scene of comeuppance when the “victim” dentist bites back at Norman.

Elliott Lotto looks like he’s having fun having adventures with a grandfather figure who otherwise comes off as a curmudgeon. He makes it look easy.

Not everything that’s happening to some of the characters is comfortable. Norman is more than mildly forgetful. He’s sharp-tongued first – second and third – before offering a pleasant word. Norman’s latent biases perhaps were passing comments in 1979, but they are more keenly apparent today. In other words, the college professor emeritus is a bigot. What lies in the future is suggested in symbolism represented by dust covers on the furniture and by the goodbye to the loons on the lake.

“On Golden Pond” brings awareness to the foibles and frustrations of aging, sore spots in families and hide-bound behavior. Audience members likely will recognize some hard things they see in life. And that’s why the play has lasted.

***

Creative: Playwright – Ernest Thompson; director – Lisa Heili; scenic design and properties – Nannette Macy; costume design – Claran LaViolette; special music – David Bowman; music engineer – Jeff LaFond; stage management – Jake Jaquart; light and sound design – Michael Sheeks

Cast (in order of appearance)

Norman Thayer, Jr. – Doug Landwehr

Ethel Thayer – Vicki Svacina

Charlie Martin – Bill Fricke

Chelsea Thayer Wayne – Elizabeth Szyman

Billy Ray – Elliott Lotto

Bill Ray – Ian Wisneski

Running time: Two hours, 42 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11, 16, 17, 18, 24 and 25; 2 p.m. Sept. 26

Info: forstinn.org

***

THE VENUE: The historic Forst Inn is located at the corner of Kewaunee County roads B and BB. The building dates to 1868, with assorted lives over the years. For a notable period – 1990 into the 2000s – the place was popular for productions of Little Sandwich Theatre, which Manitowoc attorney Ron Kaminski (deceased 2018) nurtured with a caring hand as artistic director/performer/do-all for a wide array of productions. The present venture is of that spirit. The stage is wide and narrow. The space is intimate. Seating is at small tables on two levels in a slight arc in front of the slightly raised stage. To the audience’s rear is the stage director’s space, with light and sound controls. The space is essentially a black box in theater style in the front – with additions: two chandeliers above the audience, a street lamp the seating area and the ambiance of 1920s style elements to the rear in a service area.  A seating/serving area is in the middle of the building, along with a ticketing counter. The bar area out front includes the bar, table seating, more 1920s ambiance and a passage to an art gallery (rotating artists) that is now part of the offerings of The Forst Inn Arts Collective overseen by Michael Sheeks, who also teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay campus in Manitowoc.

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