Starting a new theatrical company during a pandemic might seem like a risky proposition. However, for its inaugural effort Boat Club Productions picked a classic play and entrusted it to a pair of veteran local actors. Friday night “On Golden Pond” opened at Fitger’s Spirit of the North Theater and delivered the goods.
When I heard about this production and wondered who would be playing the lead roles, the first two names that popped into my head were Paul Waterman and Ellie Martin, and indeed that is who director Dennis Johnson cast.
As Norman Thayer Jr., Waterman regards every utterance he hears with a critical ear for finding punctuation errors and taking things the wrong way. Martin’s Ethel gives better than he gives and takes better than he takes, and I liked how he does not even try to hide his affection for her. Ethel bustles around the cabin while Norman tries to keep one foot in the grave he knows is waiting for him out there.
Waterman provides really subtle shadings in the first couple of scenes. Audience members unfamiliar with the story would not pick up the underlying elements of the scene when he goes off to pick strawberries. But once he deals with Bill Ray, his daughter’s dentist boyfriend played by Jody Kujawa, Waterman really gets into gear.
“On Golden Pond” is like a five-set match of verbal sparring between Norman and a series of opponents. His scene with Kujawa is where Waterman takes the gloves off, getting laughs with each blow he lands for the rest of the evening.
As wayward daughter Chelsea, Jessica Saxton constantly contrasts the strength she is trying to project with her voice with her defensive body language: hands behind her back, arms crossed, and even confronting Norman from behind a chair. Her performance makes it clear why she calls her father “Norman” instead of “Daddy.”
Jacob Waechter’s young Billy also makes a nice foil for Norman, an adolescent who is neither angry nor antagonistic, simply an alien from the California youth culture. Waechter is able to match Waterman laugh-for-laugh in their scenes together.
Lee E. Cutler completes the cast as Charlie Martin, the “old maid mailman” who cheerfully checks in on the proceeding a couple of times.
The set dressing is the key element in Curtis Phillips’s scenic design for the cozy cabin on Golden Pond. It is a nice trick when opening a screen door gets an audible response from an audience.
There was an opening night glitch involving a poster that simply would not stay put. The ad libs actors come up with to cover such things are invariably funny and provoke laughter. But Martin’s ad lib was so utterly heartfelt that it almost earned a tear.
That real moment underscored how well these actors know their roles and how comfortable these characters are with each other. Which is why the audience felt like they were just outside the window, enjoying the show along with the loons on Golden Pond.
If you go
What: “On Golden Pond” by Ernest Thompson
Where: Spirit of the North Theater at Fitger’s, 600 E. Superior St.
When: Friday through Sunday and Sept. 17-19 at 7 p.m.
Tickets: $30 at Eventbrite.com
Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the Duluth News Tribune.