Whether or not it’s fair, anyone who plays Stanley Kowalski in a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” will inevitably be compared — at least by a segment of the audience — to Marlon Brando. The same goes for the roles made famous by Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “The Odd Couple.”
So for Barbara Hass and Barry Dunleavey, who play Ethel and Norman Thayer in Penobscot Theatre Company’s season-opening production of “On Golden Pond,” which opens this week, the challenge is to make the audience forget the Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda versions of those roles. Iconic though their performances were, that’s Hollywood; this is theater, and even more importantly, this is Maine — where “On Golden Pond” actually is set.
“I was in the Grasshopper Shop, and a woman introduced me as ‘the one who’s playing Kate’ in ‘On Golden Pond’” said Hass, a New York-based actress. “That’s perfectly understandable, but what people miss about the play versus the movie is that the play is so much richer. The characters are much more real.”
The feisty, fearless Ethel and her cranky old poop of a husband, Norman, have come to their camp in Maine for another summer on Golden Pond. The minute they walk through the door, Ethel is picking strawberries and watching for loons; Norman is bemoaning the weather, the Red Sox, the dopey but sweet mail carrier Charlie (Arthur Morison) — everything, basically.
Then their daughter Chelsea (Jeri Misler) arrives for a visit, with her new boyfriend, Bill (Mike Elliott), and his rebellious 13-year-old son Billy (Kurt Massey) in tow. Soon, all the anger, resentment and mistakes of the past come bubbling to the surface.
“I’m always fascinated by family dynamics, and that is what the show is all about,” said director Nathan Halvorson. “When you’re in a family, you create all these rules and standards about what is acceptable and what is not. You develop your own peculiar functions and dysfunctions. This is about this special set of dysfunctions within this family.”
The interplay of Chelsea and Norman, of Norman and Billy, and of Chelsea and Bill form the foundation of the show, but it’s the tender, resilient relationship of Norman and Ethel that is the crux of the action.
“I want people to believe that they still have sex; that they’re still very much in love with each other,” said Halvorson. “You know how they say that there are two kinds of women: the ones that pick their children first, and the ones that pick their husband? Ethel would pick her husband first.”
Dunleavey, who lives in New Mexico, infuses the role of Norman with a prickly dignity. He’s set in his ways, and he’s consistently irritated by the shortcomings of his fellow human beings. Well, except for Ethel. Ethel remains his light, his source and his shoulder to lean on, and Hass plays her as a vivacious, loving, supportive wife — always trying to make her cantankerous husband feel better, encourage him, and come up with a plan B, after plan A doesn’t fly.
“Norman is the same way with everyone, and he’s been particularly mean to Chelsea, but he understands how he is. Eventually he tries to make amends through Billy,” said Hass. “One of the great scenes in the play is between Norman and Billy, when Norman asks him ‘Why are you slumped over? Stand up.’ You can see that he has taken an interest in the boy, and it’s reinvigorated him. Not many lines, but it says so much.”
Halvorson is working with the script from the 2005 Broadway revival, which updates the show for the 21st century (it premiered on Broadway in 1979). In an interesting twist for the director, playwright Ernest Thompson has been in contact with Penobscot Theatre Company during preparations for the show, and might even attend a performance and give a talk afterward.
“I didn’t have to worry about Chekhov showing up, when I directed ‘Uncle Vanya,’” said Halvorson. “It’s interesting to balance what your vision for the production is with what the author might want. I tend to try to put my own stamp on what I direct, naturally, but I think he’ll appreciate what we’ve done.”
One of the frequent criticisms that’s lobbed at the play is that it’s a bit on the sentimental side, so Halvorson has taken great care to ensure that it’s as far from a Hallmark special as possible. And unlike the movie, it’s not about cinematography and star power — it’s intimate, a little messy — and very warm.
“Rather than grand outside shots and the drama of Kate and Henry, ‘On Golden Pond’ is just a story about a family trying to come together, and forgive each other,” said Hass. “It’s about a summer of savoring what you’ve got, before it’s gone.”
“On Golden Pond” starts in previews at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 10, and Thursday, Sept. 11, with an opening night performance set for 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12, at Bangor Opera House, with additional shows at 5 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. It runs through Sept. 21. Tickets are available at the box office by calling 942-3333 or visiting www.penobscottheatre.org.