Sir Tyrone Guthrie, one of the great directors of the 20th century, maintained that casting is 80 percent of a play’s interpretation — not to mention its success.
Andrew Botsford has an inherent problem with that figure.
“Some directors, including me, get a little upset with that idea,” he said. “If you’ve got the right cast, you can’t go wrong, right? I think that’s true, but it certainly takes a lot away from everybody else that’s involved in putting on a production.”
He paused, considering The Hampton Theatre Company’s recent mounting of Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond,” now staging through Sunday, January 27.
“It’s a moving number,” the director resolved. “In this case, I’d be happy to say that the cast is 80 percent of it, because it’s a great cast — what can I say.”
In fact, the play simply couldn’t happen without the proper talent pool, explained Botsford, who has broached the production several times in the past. He needed his Norman and Ethel Thayer — the aging married couple that anchors the script, each character in differing ways.
It is their 48th summer together in Maine and, at age 80, Norman is fighting heart palpitations and a failing memory, using a mordant, slightly morbid sense of humor to rail against his fear of death — which Ethel, who is 10 years his junior, finds dreadfully annoying, as she celebrates all the small things that life has to offer.
“They come together in a beautiful way,” Botsford said. “They complement each other and, at the same time, they come together over some of the beauties at Golden Pond — their love of that place and their love of each other. That’s key to the show, the actors understanding those characters and understanding the chemistry between the two of them.”
When Botsford cast George Loizides as Norman and Diana Marbury as Ethel, he knew he had what he needed. They have all directed each other before, allowing for a certain level of trust from the very first rehearsal, he said.
“It makes for a certain amount of humor, too. Usually good humor,” Botsford said. “We can say, ‘Be careful, because I’m gonna be directing you next season. Walk carefully here.’ Or, the other thing is, you get to directing and you say, ‘Remember last year when you told me to do this? Yeah, well, it’s your turn now.’
“It’s been, really, a joy from the very beginning,” he continued with a laugh. “One of the joys of working with a company of actors is that we’ve worked together enough times and we know certain things about each other, so we have a good time doing it. It is a family; it becomes a family.”
Rounding out the “Golden Pond” dynamic are HTC veterans Paul Bolger as the mailman, Charlie Martin, and Jane Cortney as the couple’s daughter, Chelsea, as well as newcomers Wally Marzano-Lesnevich as her boyfriend, Billy Ray, and Hampton Bays High School student Ian Hubbard as his son, Billy.
“The beauty of this script is, all the relationships between these characters are sketched in by the dialogue,” Botsford said. “They’re there in the dialogue, but they’re not in any depth. We don’t get a lot of details from this. There’s not a lot of heavy exposition. In the dialogue is who these characters are and how they interact with each other.”
At first, there is tension between them: Chelsea, a middle-aged divorcée long disappointed in her relationship with her father, who is poised to set off to Europe with her boyfriend, leaving his teenage son behind with her parents, while lovesick Charlie is a foil for them all.
“After the first read-through, I gave each of the actors questions about their characters, like, how does Billy feel about his father’s divorce? How does he feel about his father going out with a new woman?” Botsford said. “I asked Chelsea, ‘What’s the nature of your problem with your father?’ They didn’t have to answer these questions for me, but they had to answer them for themselves. It’s all sketched out in the text, but it’s not made clear. The ‘t’s’ aren’t crossed and the ‘i’s’ aren’t dotted. It’s just suggested, so you come to your own understanding of it.”
First produced Off-Off-Broadway in 1978 before its Broadway run in 1979 — and an even more successful, 400-performance revival the following season — “Golden Pond” is easily Ernest Thompson’s most recognizable play, despite him writing it at just age 28, and its adapted screenplay won him an Academy Award for the eponymous 1981 film starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda.
“He says in the beginning of the play — let me get a script out — ‘For my parents, who are not Norman and Ethel, but who might be,’” Botsford read. “I think he was able to draw from life, but the brilliance of this script is you have these deft brushstrokes and you get the actors to fill in all the colors. It becomes this rich, vibrant thing that was filled in with the set, the lighting, the sound design, the music, the acting, with everything we can bring to it.
“By filing in the blanks, you make the text really come alive,” he continued. “It’s a back-and-forth thing. The text shows you where the character is and the character, by being fully fulfilled, makes the text comes to life and makes it hit hard for the audience — makes the audience laugh, makes the audience cry, makes the audience react, respond. It resonates, and that’s what live theater is all about.”
The Hampton Theatre Company will stage “On Golden Pond” on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through January 27, at Quogue Community Hall, located at 125 Jessup Avenue in Quogue. An additional matinee performance will be offered during the final weekend of the production, on Saturday, January 26, prior to the regular 8 p.m. performance that evening. Tickets range from $10 to $30. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit hamptontheatre.org.