Playing a married couple in a play or musical comes easy for Russ and Diana Wooley.
The husband and wife explained the benefits of such a dynamic, completing each other’s sentences along the way.
Russ said, “We go home after rehearsal and, uh--”
“--run a few lines. Or he critiques my acting,” Diana added.
“Well… and vice versa.”
“We’re able to read each other so well," she said. "Especially during rehearsal when I might forget something or he might forget something. You can instantly see it in each other’s eyes. So you cover for each other. But hopefully that won’t happen during the show.”
Russ and Diana are featured in Lamb Arts Regional Theatre’s “On Golden Pond,” a show about aging couple Ethel and Norman Thayer spending their summer at a lake house. Norman is a retired professor nearing his 80th birthday, experiencing his twilight years with heart problems and a failing memory. Ethel is only 10 years younger than her husband and is almost the exact opposite in terms of personality. She’s funny and warm and has a deep love for life.
Apart from Russ’ experience teaching college classes, the couple said the similarities between them and their characters are rather thin. However, Ethel’s upbeat and comforting personality reminded Diana of someone she knew very well.
“She reminds me a lot of my mother, which is kind of fun. There are a lot of times when I feel like my mother’s words are coming out of my mouth. She was very chipper and she loved having people come into the house. She just loved the idea of entertaining. She’d have cookies and coffee ready to go.”
Especially the scenes where Ethel is interacting with the mailman. Diana thought back to how her mother used to get “giddy” over company. It was a thought that had not crossed Diana’s mind when she and Russ produced “On Golden Pond” many years ago.
“So I feel like I get to spend some time with my mom,” she said.
As for Russ, he sees very few parallels between his life and Norman’s life. Russ sees Norman as a bit of a curmudgeon. With his experience serving as an adjunct professor at Morningside College and Western Iowa Tech Community College, he imagined Norman would have been a very strict teacher.
Russ conceived a conversation Norman might have with one of his students:
“Can I get an extra day with my paper?”
Norman is not a warm or inviting person by nature. “He’s not too much like me, per se, but that’s why I love to act,” said Russ. “I’m able to inhabit all these different kinds of people. But in the end, Norman is a lovable, crotchety old guy.”
Otherwise, Diana added, Ethel would have left him a long time ago.
In the play, Russ said his character tends to think about “the end” all the time. There is also an unspoken tension between him and his daughter Chelsea that serves as a pivotal plot point in the show.
“As Norman is getting older, Chelsea has a need to connect with him,” said Russ. “The themes and ideas are very realistic. There are a couple moments of real insight.”
Diana added, “[Norman] has always talked about dying. She’s just the opposite. She’s all life, life, life, life, life. There are times where she has to face the idea of the end. It’s kind of interesting.”
Between all the drama is a clever script by writer Ernest Thompson, who weaves in plenty of relatable comedy.
“We’ve had people come in and watch and they go, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s just like my folks or my grandparents,’” said Russ. “It’s very funny, but it’s also family. There are some marvelous warm moments. It’s one of those ‘feel good’ shows.”
The set itself is almost timeless in appearance, alive and full of character. A stuffed pheasant is perched atop a tall shelf; a dial phone rests on an end table; and the staircase wall is covered with enough black and white photos of relatives to trace the family tree a hundred years back.
When deciding to produce “On Golden Pond” once again, Russ and Diana looked at the show’s widespread appeal. The characters, the setting and the overall themes can be universally appreciated.
“It’s about family,” said Russ. “And it’s so well-written and it is so funny. Good theater, good story.”