By EMILY JENNINGS FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR | Oct 11, 2017
Filled with sharp-witted one-liners that keep the audience laughing throughout, Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ production of “On Golden Pond” is both delightful and deep.
From the moment Norman Thayer (Joe Inscoe) walks onstage with his sweater buttoned askew, making morbidly hilarious predictions of his own death, viewers are enamored with him.
No less Norman’s wife Ethel, played by Joyce DeWitt of “Three’s Company” fame. DeWitt imbues Ethel with unlimited energy and a sweetly affectionate tolerance of Norman’s antics.
The 1981 movie “On Golden Pond,” starring Hollywood legends Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn and Fonda’s daughter Jane, won Academy Awards for both Fonda and Hepburn, as well as best screenplay, adapted for the movie by the play’s original writer, Ernest Thompson. The movie was nominated in every other category.
Thompson’s play appeared first on Broadway in 1979, winning Frances Sternhagen a Tony Award for best actress as well as numerous Drama Desk and other awards.
At Riverside, DeWitt and Inscoe permeate the stage with their combined resumes of outstanding performance excellence, becoming Norman and Ethel so touchingly the audience can’t help but feel part of the family, and as such, to both mourn and rejoice alongside them with each turn of the plot.
Occurring in a single summer at the Thayers’ seasonal home in Maine, located on the shore of Golden Pond, the couple anticipates celebrating Norman’s 80th birthday during their 48th year on Golden Pond.
Norman, a retired English professor, in spite of much amusing lip service to the contrary, is still quick-witted and eager for life as ever, with his tart-tongued teasing and shrewd observations.
Ethel, 10 years younger, is a perfect foil for Norman’s humor, but she also struggles with the heartbreaking reality of progressive changes due to age that are just beginning to impact this man she loves so dearly.
They are visited by their somewhat estranged, divorced 42-year-old daughter Chelsea (Jennifer Joyner) and her dentist fiancé Billy Ray (Alan Hoffman), who surprise Ethel and Norman by bringing 13-year-old Billy Jr. (Mitchell Austin) and leaving him with them while they vacation in Europe.
Golden Pond mail carrier Charlie Martin (Andrew Boothby), a bachelor, visits the family during his delivery rounds and shares memories with Chelsea, with whom he enjoyed summer romances during the years they were teenagers.
Those who may have seen the movie but not the play will especially want to see this production. Though the movie is impressive, it is much heavier than the play, including added scenes between Fonda and his daughter that for some, may feel overly frustrating and uncomfortable, and only partially resolved by the movie’s end.
The play, on the other hand—though it certainly grapples with tough issues like aging, death and family relationships—balances that heaviness with facetious humor, poignant remorse and tender grace.
Once again Riverside delivers an excellent dramatic performance by an outstanding cast, directed by award-winning actress Sherri L. Edelen, who also directed “Steel Magnolias” at Riverside in 2014. This is Riverside’s third non-musical, joining “Steel Magnolias” and “Driving Miss Daisy” in 2016.
“On Golden Pond” reminds the audience to treasure our own mortality, urging us to resolve the differences we may have with those who should be dearest to us. Though that process may be painful, the joy that follows leads to deeper love and a greater promise of happiness in the time we have left.
Emily Jennings is a Stafford-based freelance writer.