The list of Twin Cities couples who share a passion for theater is quite long. The little company of Yellow Tree, though, has a particularly incestuous bent. Jessica and Jason Peterson, the married founders, have surrounded themselves with couples. Sean and Anne Byrd, Jeremiah and Vanessa Gamble, Mary Fox and Blake Thomas all have worked extensively with Yellow Tree.
And now, Yellow Tree’s production of “On Golden Pond” reunites Jon Cranney and Katherine Ferrand on stage for the first time since their 1992 performances in “Our Town” at Children’s Theatre Company. They portray Norman and Ethel Thayer, who are slipping toward life’s finish line. For good measure, another pair — Melanie Wehrmacher and Stephen Pearce — portray the Thayers’ daughter, Chelsea, and her boyfriend.
“Nepotism is legal in the theater,” Cranney said recently.
Cranney and Ferrand have known each other since 1968. Cranney, who was then stage manager at the Guthrie, recommended her to act in “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” They acted together at CTC, Chanhassen and the Guthrie, got married to other people, divorced and reconnected for good in 1989. Their work in recent years generally has consisted of Cranney directing Ferrand. There was “Shirley Valentine” at Park Square (“a terrific performance of Katherine’s,” he said) and “The Glass Menagerie” at Yellow Tree.
“I always suggest plays that have great parts for my wife,” Cranney said. “This play had a lot of reasons. It’s good for their audience — and they can afford it. And it’s a good role for Katherine.”
Cranney never intended, however, that he would get onstage to act alongside Ferrand. He had made a list of actors who might be good and then realized in studying those options with producers Jessica and Jason Peterson that affordability and availability would be challenging.
“I said, ‘Well, this guy would be wonderful, but the Guthrie has him nailed to the floor; this guy would be great but you can’t afford him,’ ” Cranney said. “Finally, I thought, ‘Why not just do it myself?’ It’s one more cantakerous person I don’t have to work with. I have to work with myself — that’s enough.”
As for Ferrand, she’s happy to be working with her husband again, as an actor.
“The nice thing is that you already know each other,” she said. “There is an ease that we have automatically.”
Living into old age
Even though the stage play came first, in 1979, “On Golden Pond” unfortunately has to compete with the 1981 film version, which won Oscars for Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. Not only that, but the cinematography and locations create indelible images in the minds of many. As Cranney wryly notes, “It’s pretty hard to get the speedboat on stage.”
The story, though, is still there — a consideration of the frailties of dotage. Ethel is coming to grips with Norman’s growing dementia. Chelsea, the daughter, realizes that in two years, she will be dealing with a father who has lost it.
Ferrand went through some of the same stuff with her mother’s Alzheimer’s. Also, her father lived with her and Cranney for the last few years of his life in their south Minneapolis home. They both mention that as a particularly meaningful and worthwhile time. Ferrand says one of the things she appreciates about the character of Ethel is “her devotion to her husband and her family.”
“There haven’t been any ugly episodes,” Cranney said.
Both Ferrand and Cranney are past retirement age, although as she says, “Retirement means you don’t think of yourself as unemployed when you’re out of work and not on stage.” She volunteers — with a hospice organization, in particular — which she views as “paying it forward.” He “looks for interesting people to have coffee and lunch with.” That curiosity and quest for people itching to learn about theater led them to Yellow Tree in the first place. “You can tell when people have the bug,” Ferrand said.
“It’s the kind of work you want to do in theater,” Cranney said. “Good people want to learn all the time.”