Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2006
On Golden Pond takes place from May-September of the 44th summer Norman (John Noble) and Ethel (Marci Bing) Thayer spend at their cabin on the titular lake in Maine. Norman turns 80 in July, and this milestone prompts a visit home from the Thayers’ only child, their divorced and childless 42-year-old daughter Chelsea (Joan Kubicek). She comes with a new dentist boyfriend Bill Ray (Anthony Crep), and his thirteen-year-old son Billy (Charles Franklin), who Chelsea and Bill want to leave with Norman and Ethel for a month while they travel in Europe. Bill Allgood as Charlie Martin, the mailman and Chelsea’s childhood sweetheart, rounds out the cast in this Theater Barn season-closer which runs through October 8.
This gentle and heartwarming 1978 comedy by actor/writer Ernest Thompson (1949- ) was a modest Broadway hit that became a blockbuster 1981 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Henry and Jane Fonda. I confess that I had never seen either the stage or the film version before, although I was certainly well aware of the subject matter of the story, which is the struggle for love and acceptance that we go through at all ages. Norman and Ethel are quite settled in their marriage, but now face the inevitability of their own mortality. Chelsea has a strained relationship with her father, who she addresses by his first name while she calls Ethel “mommy.” She never found a center in her birth family, or, apparently, in her first marriage. On the brink of finding happiness with Bill, becoming a stepmother to Billy, and losing her parents, Chelsea struggles to find peace. Bill and Billy too are looking for family, and in an odd way so are Norman and Ethel. The older couple’s blossoming relationship with the hopelessly adolescent Billy is charming as both generations find the connection they’d been seeking, while proving that families can be made, as well as born.
I was surprised to learn that Thompson was a mere twenty-eight when he wrote this play. A native of near-by Bellows Falls, Vermont, and a current resident of New Hampshire, Thompson spent his summers along the shores of Great Pond, in Belgrade, Maine, so the authentic New England flavor of the play comes as no surprise, but that such a young man would be able to write so fluently about the trials and tribulations of love amongst people in those years between 40 and 80, when the year ahead are definitely fewer in number than the ones already passed, is impressive.
The role of Norman is at the heart of On Golden Pond. The focus is his relationships with his wife, his daughter, and his soon-to-be son-in-law and step-grandson. It is his declining mental and physical health and the ways in which the other characters cope with it that are of central concern. From various reviews and descriptions of the film, I gather that Henry Fonda played the role as a classic “grumpy old man.” As we all know, old age is not for sissies, and there is nothing wrong with a little rage at the dying of the light.
Here director Phil C. Rice has Noble play Norman as quite a cuddly old guy – confused and frustrated by his increasing limitations – but ultimately warm and funny. This works because Thompson’s script is robust and charming enough to withstand the resultant weakening of the tensions between Norman and Chelsea and Norman and Billy. In this rendition the play comes across as two hours of family bonding, and as such it is a delightful choice for the first days of fall in Columbia County.
It was nice to see Crep play a subdued character this time round. I really enjoy when I get to see a performer tackle a range of roles over the course of a season or two, and Crep has been an interesting actor to watch this year. His Bill is very sweet and it is clear that he deserves Chelsea’s love and trust.
Franklin looks like he is having fun as Billy. At fourteen Franklin has racked up some impressive acting credits, and this is an ideal role for him at this awkward time in his career when he is in between playing children and playing more adult parts. He has good chemistry with all of his co-stars and received a well-deserved hand from the audience at the performance I attended.
Allgood struggles a bit with his down east accent (he is a Texan by birth) and his rendition of Charlie’s hearty laugh is at times a little strained, but it is actually harder to laugh than to cry on cue (try it), so I forgive him. He brings a warmth and sense of neighborliness to the role that is endearing even if it is more southwestern than northeastern.
For me Kubicek was the one truly weak link in the cast. She is too young for the role of Chelsea and doesn’t have much chemistry at all with Noble, with whom she shares key scenes. Chelsea is the character we should see grow and change in the course of the play, and we don’t.
Abe Phelps, he of the fabulous faux finishes, has done a wonderful job with the set which really looks and feels like the living room of a New England lakeside cabin full of wood paneling mellowed to a lovely honey color by the sun. Megan A. Moore has designed typical L.L. Bean-y ensembles for Norman and Ethel and given Kubicek slightly spiffier duds as befits her L.A. lifestyle.
At the final curtain, when Norman and Ethel stand looking out over Golden Pond in the twilight (thanks to Allen Phelps’ lighting) with the loons calling in the distance (thanks to whoever pressed that button backstage), the theatrical illusion is complete and the scene is very touching. I was reminded of my parents in their “golden” years and their determination to stay at home together until the end came – which they did – and a tear came to my eyes for all long-married couples facing the last years of life as a team.
I happened to see On Golden Pond on the last day of meteorological summer. I left the Theater Barn at 10:14 pm Friday and autumn arrived less than two hours later, at 12:03 am Saturday. It seemed truly cosmically correct that my last vision of the 2006 summer theatre season was the bittersweet sight of Ethel and Norman Thayer, Jr. looking out over Golden Pond.
On Golden Pond runs through October 8 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and ten minutes and is suitable for ages 12 and up. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
* If Norman turned 80 in 1978 he would have been born in 1898, and Ethel, nine years his junior, would have been born in 1907 (The same year as Katharine Hepburn!) We are told they married when Ethel was 21, in 1928.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006