On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson, directed by Philip C. Rice
"Don’t you think everyone looks back on their childhood with some bitterness?"
John Noble and Marci Bing
To conclude their 23rd season, the Theatre Barn has mounted an excellent end-of-summer production, On Golden Pond. End-of-summer, not just because of the timing of this production, but also because of the characters in the play and their multi-layered situation. Norman Thayer, Jr., played here by John Noble, is about to turn 80 and has developed a more curmudgeonly attitude about his life and his future than is normal for him. On vacation in their Maine Summer Home, his wife, Ethel, almost a decade younger, and played here by Marci Bing, puts up with him, loves him, cajoles him. When they are visited by their daughter Chelsea, a 44 year old divorcee with no children, things heat up a bit; Norman and Chelsea don’t get along at all, it seems. She brings her boyfriend and his 13 year old son, leaving the boy with her parents while she goes off to Europe with his father. Boy and Old Man bond. Daughter begins new life. Summer ends and everyone goes home. End of story. Or is it?
In 1979 the play was not the big hit that we might believe it was. It played in New York with Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen as Norman and Ethel for a total of 389 performances. It was revived last year with James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams for a modest 112 performances - its only major revival. Both times it garnered award nominations. The 1981 film won Academy Awards, including Henry Fonda’s only prize. The problem for the play is in the writing, but its not the playwright’s fault.
The play actually hits on themes that in 1979 no one was putting names to and even in 1981 when the film version starring Henry Fonda (his last movie), Katherine Hepburn, Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman was made the issues of Alzheimer’s Disease weren’t being openly discussed; in fact the name Alzheimer’s wasn’t being applied to the dementia at that point in time. But that is one of the serious issues addressed subliminally here by the author. Norman Thayer, Jr. is losing his marbles. It is said that as we grow older we grow moreso - whatever our traits in youth, they become exagerated in adulthood and grow moreso with age. Norman has never been easy. He is a professorial type who uses language to taunt and humiliate, a means of keeping students in line for many teachers in eons gone by. As a 79 year old he does the same thing, but with a difference. For him language has become a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to keep people at a distance. It works for some, a telephone operator for one, but not for others, not for those who know him and love him like Ethel. She puts such games at arm’s length. It is only when Norman fails to find the road outside their summer home that she realizes the degree of loss in the man she loves. This important moment, a three-hanky scene in the film, is the only place that Philip C. Rice fails to play with in this production. Here is the biggest clue to what’s really happening to these folks, and he lets it go by without a tug at the heart-strings. It’s a shame, because the rest of the play and the players’ choices are perfection.
Noble is fascinating as Norman. He pulls his shoulders up to his ears in indignation. He smiles and shows his teeth, his head thrown back at an obtuse angle. He warms to the boy left in his care, a grandfatherly figure who can’t quite be one and who can’t be a boy either; caught inbetween somewhere he uses pedantry and rudeness alternately to show affection. He’s a marvel. Denied the one big moment where fear and understanding could come together, he still manages a moving performance that, by the end of Act Two, leaves us hoping that this character will make it back to Golden Pond for at least one more year.
Bing, on the other hand, is all business and all charm. She turns Ethel Thayer into someone far less frustrated than Hepburn is in the film and far more indulgent of her husband’s eccentricities. If she was less a wife, less a partner to Noble’s Norman she would not be the character who charms even her own daughter out of infantile funks. Her work here is even finer than her performance earlier this summer in The Spitfire Grill.
As the dentist who would like to sleep with their daughter Anthony Crep makes his third appearance of the summer in a role totally unlike the ones that came before. He presents a man totally out of his element and he does it with finesse. Not quite a comic figure, Bill Ray - his character’s name - is another foil for Norman and their near-classic dialogue about sleeping arrangements in the summer cottage is genuine laugh-riot, a good one this time. Charles Franklin plays his son, Billy Ray, with charm. He has a good range for a young actor and shows much promise. Hopefully the Barn can find him a role or two for next summer if he wants to continue acting. He does it well.
Joan Kubicek plays Chelsea Thayer Wayne, the once-married, formerly chubby daughter. She does all right with the role, one of the thankless parts younger people often play in dramas about older folks. She has the right sense and the right feel, even mimicking, at times, some of Noble’s physical traits, strengthening the illusion of family on stage. Set in 1979, she wears clothing of the period which do not show her off in a flattering way. The slight tendency toward dowdiness could have been avoided, but doesn’t really mar her performance - it only distracts somewhat bringing up odd questions (in the viewer’s mind only) about who she is and what she does in California. Her second act attempt to start a relationship with her father prompts his question" When will this friendship begin?" It’s been 44 years without good connections. It’s a legitimate challenge. As they both try to meet it, at a time when his mind is going and her mind is elsewhere, the play takes off into the emotional stratosphere under the double escort of these two talented actors..
Bill Allgood rounds out the cast as the mailman, Charlie, who once was Chelsea’s boyfriend.
Megan A. Moore’s costume choices for her characters work very well, other than those two costumes for Chelsea. Abe Phelps’ set is absolutely right, even to the fabulous view over the lake. Allen E. Phelps does very nicely with the lighting, although the excessive dramatics of the final moments could have been avoided in an otherwise very realistic production.
End-of-summer - a time for major changes. End your summer with a visit to Maine’s Golden Pond as seen in New Lebanon. It’s a very worthwhile journey.
◊ 09-23-06 ◊
For tickets and information call The Theater Barn in New Lebaonon, New York at 518-794-8989.