Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2007
The production of Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond currently running at Oldcastle is definitely feel-good summer theatre. There is nothing wrong with that. I personally had a very good time at the show, especially since Carleton Carpenter’s Norman Thayer reminded me very much of my own father, who lived to be 89.
In case you have lived under a rock for the past few decades, On Golden Pond tells the story of the 44th summer Ethel (Sheila Childs) and Norman Thayer, Jr. spend in their cabin on the titular pond in the state of Maine. They have one child, a 42-year-old daughter named Chelsea (Melissa Hurst), who has been married and divorced and is childless. Over the course of the five scenes (one for each month from May-September), the elder Thayers’ deal with their advancing age and Chelsea finds love with a dentist named Bill Ray (Richard Howe), who has a 13-year-old son named Billy (James Abrams). To provide local color they are visited periodically by their mailman Charlie Martin (Patrick Ellison Shea), who has always had a crush on Chelsea.
The tiny bits of conflict in the play arise from the stormy relationship Chelsea has had with Norman (she doesn’t call him Daddy) and the brief (blink-and-you’ll-miss-it) angst Ethel and Norman suffer when faced with caring for Billy (whose adolescent rebellion takes the form of slouching and using the word “Bullshit”) while Chelsea and Bill travel in Europe. Otherwise this play is just all warm and fuzzy fun.
Thompson has been tinkering with this script ever since he wrote it in 1978 at the amazingly young age of 28. No doubt he is bringing his own experiences of aging and dealing with elderly relatives to the work, and I think it is a better portrait now of Ethel and Norman than it was. But to the detriment of the character of Chelsea, who creates the only bits of distress in the play. We don’t see enough of her now to really care about her relationship with her father, her failed marriage, and her decision to take another chance on love, with step-parenting thrown in for extra credit.
None of the characters in this play are very exciting people. Even Norman, who is supposed to be this cantankerous old curmudgeon is really just an old man with a sharp wit and tongue. No doubt it was sharper in the day. But two summery hours is a pleasant spell to spend with a nice older couple, especially on William John Aupperlee’s wonderful set. If you photographed it for a real estate ad I bet it would fetch a cool half million! I know I wanted to move right in.
Carpenter, a veteran of stage and screen, is actually just a hair older than Norman, who celebrates his 80th birthday in the course of the play. It is nice to see an octogenarian playing an octogenarian. Carpenter is very, very good in this role, so very realistic that you could swear he wasn’t acting at all. In a recent interview in the Bennington Banner Carpenter claimed that Thompson had once recommended to him that he play Norman, and I can see why. It is a very good fit.
Unfortunately Childs, who was Carpenter’s choice to co-star with him as Ethel, is not as good a fit. Childs is a lovely woman who can just barely pass as a 60-something. It looks rather like Norman has robbed the cradle (the couple is supposed to have a nine year age gap). In addition, Childs plays Ethel as a relentlessly cheerful woman. There are no layers to her performance. I have certainly known women of Ethel’s generation who put on a relentlessly cheerful face for the outside world, but in this play we see many, many scenes where Norman and Ethel are home alone together. No couple who has been married for 40+ years is that cheerful all the time!
Hurst and Howe tackle the bland and thankless roles of Chelsea and Bill. Hurst tries too hard to be perky at times, but Howe is always a pleasure to see. Bill’s big scene is the one where he explains to Norman that he and Chelsea would like to share a bedroom. Norman, of course, gives him a terribly hard time about it just because he can. Watching two pros like Carpenter and Howe play this silly little scene was just delightful. Much more fun than it should have been!
Shea plays Charlie with a broad Down-east accent and an infectious giggle. Again, I which Thompson had given his character more to do than drink coffee and pine for Chelsea, but he didn’t and so Shea does the best with the hand he’s been dealt.
Abrams looks a little younger than the thirteen he is playing. He is a genuine “professional kid” with TV commercials, films, and the obligatory appearance on “Law and Order” to his credit, which explains his annoyingly pat performance here. But again, he isn’t given much to work with, (at 28 Thompson was inexplicably much better at writing about 80-year-olds than 13-year-olds,) and Abrams is convincing enough as a not-too-threatening-adolescent who actually enjoys the company of old people he hardly knows.
Oldcastle Producing Artistic Director Eric Peterson has directed this pleasing production. A great many people look for happy shows like this for their summer entertainment, and if you are among that number this is the show for you. After the matinee performance I attended my companion kindly drove me out to her nearby lakeside cabin where we sat on the deck and watched the ripples and the occasional canoe (no motor boats allowed – hooray!) While there is no real Golden Pond, Thompson who was born in Vermont, summer in Maine, and now lives in New Hampshire, has done a wonderful job of capturing the golden light and feeling of lakeside living. I could almost hear the loons.
On Golden Pond produced by the Oldcastle Theatre Company, runs through July 29 at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of VT Rt. 9 and Gypsy Lane. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the Oldcastle box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007