On Golden Pond at the Jungle Theater

Bain Boehlke and Wendy Lehr as Norman and Ethel Thayer. Photo:  Michal Daniel

Bain Boehlke and Wendy Lehr as Norman and Ethel Thayer. Photo: Michal Daniel

The Jungle Theater closes its season with the familiar and lovely “On Golden Pond” by Ernest Thompson, starring a “golden” duo, Bain Boehlke and Wendy Lehr. I don’t know how many shows Boehlke and Lehr have done together, or “how far back they go,” but I do know that there are few theater artists in the Twin Cities that are as well known and admired. Together they are pretty irresistible. This one’s simple: Go see it because you love Twin Cities theater. If you don’t know who these two people are, now’s your chance to find out why we love ‘em so.

This one is for traditionalists, right down to the curtain opening to reveal the living room of a lake cabin in Maine. Boehlke didn’t just star in the show, he also directed and designed the set: a fieldstone fireplace; dark green wicker chairs; tall, paned windows; wood walls, floor and ceiling beams. It is quite beautiful and makes us feel part of this cozy scene.

Boehlke as the irascible Norman Thayer Jr. takes the stage alone as the curtain opens. This gives us time to absorb the setting, get a little exposition and learn something about why Ethel Thayer (Lehr) loves her husband, in spite of his prickly cover. She is as perky and positive as he is not, which not only sets up a lot of the comedy, but creates an abrasive surface on which tensions will mount later.

Lehr is one of those rare actors that seems to be able to get inside the skin of every character she plays. Every time she steps on stage, there is a collective audience smile, I suspect. You just can’t help it. Boehlke’s approach to a character seems a bit more technical to me, with less emotional expanse and more of a single-minded portrayal.

E.J. Subkoviak was perfect as the awkward, clueless and lovable old pal of Chelsea’s childhood, Charlie Martin. He still carries the torch for her, but seems resigned to his “old friend” status. Subkoviak just nailed the accent, the look and the mannerisms.

Michael Booth as Billy’s father, Bill Ray, was also completely believable as Chelsea’s dentist fiancé – a little too open about relationship matters – enough to make Norman toss off a few more quips and check out for a while.

Jennifer Blagen as their daughter Chelsea carries a happy-on-the-edge-of-disaster demeanor. She doesn’t really like her dad, but she wants so much to love him – and even more, to have him admit that he loves her.

As charming and capable as he was, I think the character of Billy Ray needed to be played by a slightly older actor, one more clearly on the cusp of adolescence. Peder Lindell was just too young. I do look forward to seeing this young actor again, however.

Since millions of people may know the movie version, let me offer this: The play is much funnier, much more subtle, intimate and close to real life. It’s so beautifully written, with all the most significant “action” in subtext and nuance. You will have to work a little harder to connect with the play, but it is so worth it.

The play runs until December 21. What a nice alternative for a holiday show!

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