October 12, 2017 · by Maggie Lawrence
Humor and sadness and loons, memory of the past, defiance of the future, shadows of regret and fear. All who have watched their parents grow old, who see themselves growing old, understand “On Golden Pond.”
Ernest Thompson’s family comedy/drama played on Broadway in 1979, but gained wide recognition with the 1982 movie starring Henry and Jane Fonda as – surprise – father and daughter, and Katherine Hepburn in what must have been her thousandth performance as frail-but-indomitable-Katherine Hepburn. Now a gold star on regional theatre circuits, “On Golden Pond” makes its first appearance at Riverside under the direction of Sherri Edelen.
There is much to admire and only a few things to question in this play of simple surfaces and complex underpinnings. Norman and Ethel Thayer have returned to their summer home on Golden Pond as they have every year of their long marriage. In the course of the summer, Norman will turn 80, their only child, Chelsea, will arrive bringing her soon-to-be husband, Bill, and stepson, Billy. Chelsea and Bill will head for Europe leaving Billy with the Thayers. And the loons will return to the lake to raise their young.
Within this capsule, some things become startlingly clear. Not only is Norman terrified of the implications of his growing loss of memory, Ethel is equally afraid for him, and her unrelieved dance of enthusiasm and denial, her pretense that nothing has really changed, is a fragile barrier to mortality. Add to this the fact that Chelsea and Norman simply don’t like each other. Maybe not “simply.” Chelsea spent her formative years trying to please him and he spent them not being pleased. This is one of the big questions that is never addressed by script or implication. Did he just want a boy and was disappointed in a girl? We don’t know.
Plenty is done right in this production, but the real coup is Joe Inscoe and Joyce DeWitt as the comfortable-as-an-old-slipper pairing of Norman and Ethel Thayer. Inscoe, a seasoned performer of great range, does us the favor of never falling lazily into the grumpy-but-cute-old man category. He’s grumpy, all right, but his deadpan observations landing with a “thwack” wherever they’re tossed provide the real humor of the play. He’s a hard-shelled crab, and his crankiness and wry remarks spring from a deep center where only the occasional flash of fear and love appears.
Joyce DeWitt was a special find for this show. Best remembered for her role in the TV series “Three’s Company,” she uses frantic chirpiness to counter Norman’s daily death talk. Because she was as frenetic chasing a moth as she was greeting her daughter or remarking on the loons, I found myself longing for a bit of shading – something to separate the importance of the moments. The late climactic scene, however, plumbed the depths of both Norman and Ethel, and created a hear-a-pin-drop moment of emotion and discovery.
The arrival of Chelsea (Jennifer Joyner) and fiancé, Bill Ray, (Alan Hoffman) provides another rub for revealing Norman in his old coot glory. With Chelsea, the cold tension is palpable; all the resentments, blame, and refusal to take the blame just sit between them like an undigestible meal. With Bill, however, their minor conflict is played for all its entertaining worth. Bill politely asks for Norman’s approval before sleeping with Chelsea under their roof, and Norman’s widely known reputation for being difficult comes shining forth. It’s a funny scene.
Andrew Boothby as mailman, Charlie Martin, maintains the desired balance between outsider and comfortable family friend, and – I am relieved to say – did not harm himself trying to affect a Maine accent as some performers do. His occasional drop-ins give Ethel a chance to voice bits of exposition as well as her own fears.
But the jewel in the crown is young Billy (Mitchell Austin) who will spend the rest of the summer dragging Norman out of himself, bonding in a fishing boat. This part can be thrown away without effect, but Mr. Austin is a youth of remarkable talent and presence. As a 13-year-old cool kid, he matches timing and wit with a grudgingly fascinated Norman and becomes the subtle catalyst for change.
Michael Jarett’s warm lighting complements Frank Foster’s detailed interior scene design. The stone fireplace, wood paneled walls with multiple family pictures, the suggestion of rafters and hint of outdoors all work together in a visual reminder of the slow but cumulative passage of years. The furniture is uncovered at the beginning and covered again at the end in preparation for the long winter ahead. The baby loons are leaving the nest. Maybe they’ll be back next year.
“On Golden Pond” is an ideal dramatic buffer between musicals. A delicate combination of humor, reflection, fear, and reconciliation – if that’s your cup of tea, go to Riverside and have a sip.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.