- By gentleguide
- On Thu 19 Oct 2017
Tallgrass Theatre Company opens its season next Friday with On Golden Pond. While most know the Oscar-winning movie with Henry and Jane Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, On Golden Pond was originally a play on Broadway. Director Micheal Davenport and his cast bring this play to the Rex Mathes Auditorium beginning Friday October 27th.
Micheal Davenport is no stranger to local theatre audiences, having directed numerous shows in his career. Most recently, he has helmed big summer musicals for Urbandale Community Theatre (this year’s Guys and Dolls, and Beauty and the Beast last summer). Now he’s directing a much smaller show, but with no less impact. And he’s also no stranger to the history of this particular title.
“I grew up watching the movie - with the Fondas and Kate Hepburn - on cable, says Micheal. “It seemed to always be on one channel or another. The movie was produced because Jane Fonda saw the play (with Francis Sternhagen and Tom Aldredge) and quickly acquired rights to it. She had a keen interest in the opportunity to do a project with her father, in hopes to repair their relationship - so damaged by her lifestyle and her politics - not unlike the father/daughter relationship in the play.”
“There are many similarities, and a few logical differences, between the stage and the screen. Ultimately, the show is about relationships and the culmination of having lived and loved.”
“The ghosts and residue of previous incarnations of this show is certainly a fun challenge. Not impersonating Fonda or Hepburn has not been difficult. This production is clearly and excellently led by Debi Garner and Jim Arthur, they make these characters their own from the very beginning.”
On Golden Pond is about the one particular summer for Ethel and Norman Thayer, once again visiting their vacation home in Maine. In their twilight years, they are visited by their daughter Chelsea, along with Chelsea’s new boyfriend Bill and his young son Billy, ostensibly to celebrate Norman’s 80th birthday. But the past frictions of the family intrude, and the entire extended family has to face some honest truths about love, life, and how some things don’t always last forever. With so many other shows focused on younger casts and coming-of-age stories, Micheal is glad to be able to showcase a couple of veteran performers in solid, starring parts.
Debi Garner and Jim Arthur have excellent chemistry as the Thayers, having lived a long and happy life together. And it gives them an opportunity that isn’t always available. “I hope audiences will see that mature actors, those who haven’t had the opportunity for glamorous leading roles in the last several years, will come to appreciate the treasure trove of talent of which are these fine performers. I hope audience will take the opportunity to enjoy the current autumn season, and reflect on their own life and learn from the experiences and stories told on this stage.”
It also is a teaching experience, as Micheal is an instructor at Roosevelt High School here in Des Moines, and is simultaneously directing their fall play, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. And the experiences from one show find their way into informing the other.
“I talk often of both arenas, Roosevelt student theatre and Tallgrass Theatre, to each group. I think students can tell I’m busy working on this show, in addition to their production of Blithe Spirit, because of the bags under my eyes and how I keep referring to one young actress as ‘Ethel.’”
“But seriously, the students and the adults have enjoyed the anecdotes about each other. I can tell you this, blocking a scene with more mature actors and blocking a scene with younger, less experienced actors is quite similar in terms of time consumption, but for different reasons.”
“I have invited my students to come see On Golden Pond before their own show opens. I’m fortunate to have my position as Department Chair of the Drama Department, in large part, due to convenient timing, but also because of my standing and reputation in the local theatre community. Many of my students and colleagues were familiar with my previous work - and it is very humbling to be honored and valued for work in an art I love.”
Small Theatre, Big Heart
On Golden Pond is presented in Tallgrass Theatre’s home, the Rex Mathes Auditorium in West Des Moines. Even decked out with Tallgrass’ brand new lighting equipment, the intimate venue is a far cry from those mega-musicals Micheal directed over the last couple of summers. But in this case... especially in this case... small is better.
“Rex Mathes is more akin to the storefront theatres I worked in back in Chicago, intimate, bold, theatrically cozy. I often brag, but the Rex Mathes theatre, Tallgrass’ current home, is about the average size of an off-Broadway house, not dissimilar from the 90-seat houses in Los Angeles. I like these smaller cast shows better than a huge musical, because I get more one-on-one time with the actors.”
“Specifically, we probably spent a good 3-weeks on table-work alone: dissecting the script, the motivations, beats, the through-line for the characters, etc. Smaller casts allow for more time to try things out without the pressure of needing to ‘move on’ for the sake of getting time for the choreographer or musical director, as in a big musical.”
And honestly, Micheal would love to do more like On Golden Pond, or whatever other pieces would let him explore all the shapes and colors of theatre, and not just the sounds of musicals.
“This will sound odd, given my penchant for directing musicals (all that most people know me for), but I would like to see more risks taken by theatre groups to stage more plays, and fewer musicals. Theatre is such an important element in our community, but we aren’t doing enough to reach out to the entire community, we tend toward an echo chamber. I’m not sure what more can be done, but I wish we could be inclusive and inviting: take the theatre to the people, wherever they are. We shouldn’t just sit in our little temples and hope they come to us.”
For now, Micheal and the cast and crew are ready to present On Golden Pond, and invite you to join them at the Thayer summer cottage. Tallgrass Theatre’s first production for the season opens October 28th at the Rex Mathes Auditorium and runs on Friday and Saturday evenings through November 11th. Tickets are available through the Tallgrass Theatre Company website.