Not your average holiday show |

Not your average holiday show

Photo by Trina Ortega

CARBONDALE ” When Lon Winston was looking for a play to direct this holiday season, he kept away from the obvious. He didn’t want to go the “Christmas Carol” or “Miracle on 34th Street” route.

So, in his words, he opted for “a beautiful love story.”

That seems to be the TRTC artistic director’s favorite way to describe “On Golden Pond,” which begins its run tonight. But when he speaks of love, he’s not talking about your average boy-meets-girl romance. The play is rooted in the love between an old, married couple, now dealing with the first signs of dementia. It’s about the caring between a father and grown daughter, the bond between an old man and a young boy, and the feelings between two divorced, middle aged people, trying their hand at a courtship. As all these relationships dance together in a little vacation home in Maine ” the same one the old couple has been returning to for decades ” Winston feels the effect is quite sweet and real.

“This is a play that begs for so much affection,” he said.

And its stars are happy to oblige.

As Norman, the 80-year-old patriarch, Richard Lyon knows he’s playing a curmudgeon. Yet he shows the guy’s funny, soft side as well. Underneath the man’s crusty exterior, Lyon sees that Norman is “very observant, very loyal and very loving.”

He makes sure to play it up.

That’s what makes the story fun and touching for him. For most people, the themes of old age and morbidity are scary, unpalatable. But when Lyon is able to deal with them in this setting, they are much less intimidating. By focusing on Norman’s marriage to his wife of many years, Ethel, some of the fear of the scenario just melts away.

“I think what makes it OK is the relationship, is the love,” Lyon said.

It’s because of Ethel that Norman has a person with whom to share his fear, discuss his frustration. Thanks to her, he’s able to weather his painful changes.

“It’s a play that certainly carries a message of love and a message of life,” Lyon said, “And I guess we could say a message of new life.”

His Ethel, aka Wendy Perkins, is enthralled by that aspect of the show. As she talked about her character, who she described as “forever the Pollyanna positive,” her voice was bursting with excitement. It’s the love, she feels, that gives the play so much hope. It’s love that gives it everything.

“Love encompasses all,” she said. “Love is the culmination of all feelings. And if we can come from the place of love in our lives, then the world would change.”

That’s certainly where Ethel ” and Perkins herself ” lives. Ethel isn’t affecting the world, but she might as well be, as her caring means everything to her husband. He makes little mistakes, forgets things, and she gently corrects him, and she just keeps giving him support as they head into a not-so-certain future together. Absolutely enamored with her character, Perkins can’t help but pump every ounce of her being into Ethel. When Ethel talks about the loons right outside her window, for example, Perkins almost feels as though she can hear them. As Ethel loves the birds, Perkins does too, and she’s constantly, happily shocked by how elated she gets over the fictional animals. At a certain point, she isn’t even playacting anymore. Every night on-stage, Ethel is simply who she is.

“This has really been one of the best theatrical experiences of my life,” she said.

Winston didn’t hear those words, but he certainly would have understood. As he described it, “Golden Pond” is “wonderful and uplifting,” and that’s why he chose it. Even as he was designing the set, it’s obvious he kept that essence in mind. The rustic living room where the action takes place is wood-paneled and filled with old furniture and books and board games and family photos. It could be anyone’s grandparents’ house, which is, of course, the point. This is the couple’s nest, Winston knows, and it’s from that warm, hearth-like place that his show is delivered.

“It’s just one of those touching, family plays,” he said.

Holidays or not, he wants to impart that joy to everyone watching.

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