Story: It’s May, and for Ethel and Norman Thayer Jr. that means trekking to their summer hideaway in Maine on a lake called Golden Pond. Norman, a retired English professor, and Ethel have been journeying to this idyllic retreat of Ethel’s childhood for nearly 50 years, while friends have come and gone. Charlie the mail carrier is a constant, though, annually asking about their daughter Chelsea, a former girlfriend he still fondly misses.
This summer will be different for the Thayers, as 42-year-old Chelsea, who is estranged from her father, surprisingly calls with plans to visit to help Norman celebrate his 80th birthday. She arrives with her new fiancée, a Los Angeles dentist named Bill, and his 13-year-old son Billy. The irascible and curmudgeonly Norman seems set in his ways, but when Billy is left behind while Chelsea and Bill tour Europe, Norman finds himself rejuvenated by the bright and friendly young houseguest.
Highlights: Ernest Thompson wrote this warm and fuzzy two-act comedy in 1979, garnering the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play. Later he picked up an Oscar for his 1981 film adaptation, which also won Academy Awards for Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, while a 2005 revival on Broadway that was modified for an African-American cast took home Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play and Best Actor in a Play (James Earl Jones).
Since not a whole lot really happens in the script, it isn’t really all that dated. Thompson’s amusing writing, if not groundbreaking or provocative, is substantial enough to provide sufficient fodder for versatile performers to ingratiate themselves with an audience with the cast of likable characters. Such is the case with the opening production of The Black Rep’s 35th season, as artistic director Ron Himes and Linda Kennedy, 2012 Lifetime Achievement in the Arts honoree by the Arts and Education Council, play beautifully off each other and lovingly craft Thompson’s endearing script with their savvy and considerable charm.
Other Info: Himes is a master in delivering dialogue and is at the top of his game as the stubborn Norman, a witty and intelligent man whose memory is starting to slip precipitously. He carefully shapes Norman’s various lines in a sure and steady deadpan style that is most amusing in scenes with Chauncy Thomas and Christopher Cross as Bill and Billy, respectively. Thomas takes the relatively small role of Bill and gives it surprising depth and dimension with his likable approach, while young Cross is an amusing tonic for the crotchety Norman with his free-spirited youth. It’s obvious the two will become fast fishing buddies.
Kennedy fills Ethel with warmth, love and also an indomitable spirit that has steered her husband through all manner of waters for nearly half a century. She can be delighted sharing an impromptu breakfast with the genial mail carrier Charlie (an affable Aaron Baker who needs to tone down Charlie’s omnipresent laugh just a tad) or firm in lecturing her daughter about the need to grow up and assume responsibility for her life instead of blaming Norman for past slights or emotional wounds. Kathi Bentley nicely handles the role of the prodigal daughter, another part not especially well written but important to the story’s plot.
Lorna Littleway directs the goings-on, such as they are, with a languid pace that would match an idle day with a fishing pole dropped in the water, letting her cast put their own touches on the characters. Additionally, her informative program notes allude to the historical context of blacks in the ‘North Country’ of New England.
Jim Burwinkel’s set is most impressive, filling the Grandel stage with the Thayers’ handsome and sturdy (except for an amusingly rickety screen door) abode that features bookshelves, a plethora of fishing hats for Norman and a mantel with Ethel’s memorabilia, including a beloved old doll courtesy of props master Robert van Dillen. Em Rossi provides the costumes, highlighted by a garish outfit adorning Chelsea, Nathan Scheur’s lighting adds a welcome touch to some poignant scenes and Robin Weatherall’s sound design provides some suitably rustic background noises.
As comfortable as a pair of familiar slippers, On Golden Pond is given a faithful and tender rendering by The Black Rep to inaugurate the company’s 35th season.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein
Play: On Golden Pond
Group: The Black Rep
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: Wednesdays through Sundays through February 5
Tickets: From $35 to $47, with discounts available; contact 534-3810, 534-1111 or metrotix.com