For his last turn as artistic director, Greg Johnson picked what he calls a "sunset" play.
The Montana Repertory Theatre's 2018 national touring production is Ernest Thompson's "On Golden Pond," a story about love, family, aging and letting go.
"It was about saying goodbye and this is my year of saying goodbye," said Johnson, who's 68 years old.
In his case, it's a goodbye to an institution he's served for nearly three decades. During his tenure, the professional company in residence at the University of Montana staged 29 national tours, including three outings of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which became its signature play and helped establish the Rep's reputation for "great American stories," and greatly expanded the number of its touring stops.
For this final tour, he enlisted some favorite collaborators on stage and behind the curtain.
The play, familiar to many from the 1981 film with Katharine Hepburn and Henry and Jane Fonda, centers on the relationships between Norman Thayer, a retired principal approaching his 80th birthday, and his family.
Norman, played by professional equity actor J.R. Robinson, and his wife Ethel, played by equity actor Suzy Hunt, return to Golden Pond, the lake in Maine where they've spent nearly 50 years' worth of summers. Norman's contemplation of death, sometimes humorous and sometimes not, is hastened by his flagging memory. The play was written in the late 1970s, when there was little widespread use of terms like Alzheimer's or dementia to describe the effects of aging on the brain.
While Ethel tries to keep him in good spirits, her efforts are complicated by a rare visit from their daughter, played by Amber Mason. She and Norman, to whom she refers by his first name, barely speak to one another.
"There is great anger in this play and if you retreat from it, it becomes some kind of a sitcom and it's not," Johnson said. "What gives it its ballast and real power is the fact that there's real anger between this father and this daughter."
The nature of their rift remains somewhat ambiguous, Johnson said. There are references to Norman being demanding and pushing her to follow in his footsteps as a competitive diver, and her emotional unhappiness despite success in her career after moving far away.
For this visit, she brings along her new boyfriend, a dentist named Bill, played by University of Montana student Ryson Sparacino. Another undergraduate, Morgan Solonar, plays Billy, his 13-year-old son, who Hunt says becomes a rejuvenating energy in their lives.
The Rep decided to stage the play as a late '70s period piece, complete with L.L. Bean clothing to suite its Northeastern roots. The set for the idyllic cabin weighted with memory was designed by one of Johnson's favorite designers, Mike Fink, who worked on the Rep's "All My Sons" tour. Fink generated a clever, artfully "skeletal" structure that allows the performances to "fill in the blanks," Johnson said.
Robinson, Hunt and Johnson have all collaborated together on Rep tours over the years. Hunt, who's based in Seattle, has known Johnson since his native New York, and this is her seventh tour with the Rep.
Hunt said Ethel and Norman are "right up there with the best roles in modern theater" for older actors.
The casting opportunities available to actors dwindle as they get older, she said, often only coming in the form of elderly stock characters.
"On Golden Pond," meanwhile, gives her and Robinson the opportunity to "explore what it means to be frightened of death, and yet to face it, and bravely so."
She sees it as a rare and unsentimental examination of those issues, which she believes has contributed to its popularity and longevity.
She described Ethel as a "rallying force" in the face of Norman's difficulties. When you're going through hard times in your life, your loved ones "rally you," she said. "They pick you up. They look at what's happened, they see your faults, it doesn't matter," she said. Robinson said Hunt has "incredible energy and absolute commitment" to whatever aspect they're working on.
She said she admires for his acting's straightforwardness and the way he's embodying an older character. He's also a great touring partner and person, she said.
"That is important, because you can't hide who you are once you get on stage. It's all very evident."
Robinson, who is in mid-60s, said it's a very challenging role. He said he has to make Norman's frailties and physical coping mechanisms evident without allowing them to overwhelm the character. His breathing, posture, ways of sitting or standing, deciding his way of peering through his glasses.
Norman's vulnerability is also important. There's not a lot there, he said, but it's important that the audiences recognizes it.
"He can't be utterly distasteful or unlikable. You have to have some compassion and understanding of what his life has been and where it is now," he said.
Hunt said Johnson is "very supportive" of actors' freedom to make decisions about their characters — within reason, of course.
As an acting teacher and director, Johnson said he emphasizes "strength of personality," and does the same in casting.
The Rep frequently produces plays that have been turned into movies with iconic performances: Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire," or Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird." He said he and the cast have barely discussed the film version of "On Golden Pond."
"You just can't worry about it," Johnson said. He said the cultural memory of the film becomes part of the territory and "the whole understanding of the piece that you don't fight against."