Story: Retired English professor Norman Thayer and his wife Ethel have visited the same cabin on the shores of Golden Pond in the woods of Maine for 48 years. He’s about to turn 80, she’s nearing 70 but they look at life through different prisms.
While Norman revels in being cantankerous while complaining about nearly everything, Ethel views the glass as a hearty half-full. She’s happy that their only child, 42-year-old, childless divorcee Chelsea, will be visiting them for the first time in eight years. In the meantime, she spoils Chelsea’s childhood boyfriend Charlie with biscuits and coffee as he makes his rounds as the local mail carrier.
Chelsea calls ahead to inform her mother that she’s bringing along her new boyfriend Bill and his teenage son Billy Jr. When they arrive, the long-standing tension and friction between Norman and Chelsea immediately is palpable. They probably love each other, but they certainly don’t know how to communicate, ironic for the former English teacher.
Norman, though, takes a shining to Billy Jr. When Ethel tells him that Chelsea and Bill are leaving Billy Jr. behind for a month at Golden Pond while they go to Europe, Norman unexpectedly finds himself with a new fishing partner. There may be some new tricks for the old dog yet.
Highlights: Savvy interpretations by veteran performers John Contini and Peggy Billo help artistic director A.S. Freeman deliver a smooth rendition of this warm-hearted, entertaining drama by Ernest Thompson.
Other Info: Ozark Actors Theatre offers three comedies and/or musicals in its summer season, now in its 30th anniversary year. The 2017 edition marks the fourth year under producing managing director Stephenie Moser and the initial participation of artistic director Freeman. It’s a pleasant, 100-mile journey from St. Louis down I-44 to Rolla, where OAT performs at the Cedar Street Playhouse, a renovated church that features a decent-sized stage and comfortable, raked seating.
Coincidentally, Insight Theatre Company in St. Louis currently is staging its own production of On Golden Pond, drawing inevitable comparisons between the two renditions. Each succeeds on its own, and sometimes different, merits.
The OAT show takes place on Jack Golden’s handsome set design, focused on the large living room in the Thayer cabin, with a dilapidated screen door at stage right that is a running joke in the story, and some steps at stage left that lead to unseen bedrooms and a bathroom. A window in the back alludes to the nearby lake where Ethel listens for the romantic wailing of the inhabitant loons, something emphasized in Blake Hardin’s sound design.
Jenna Light contributes costumes that match the various players and Kevin Shaw satisfactorily lights scenes to complement the action. Laura Light fills the set with props ranging from a mounted fish to Norman’s fishing poles to board games and an old black rotary phone as well as Ethel's charming little puppet which resides on the mantelpiece.
Contini conveys the churlish nature of Norman while also underscoring his tender feelings for his wife and especially his rejuvenation with the arrival of an unexpected fishing buddy in Billy Jr. He’s especially fine in a striking scene when Chelsea arrives at the cabin and walks right by Norman to embrace her mother. Contini’s sad, sorrowful look says volumes.
Billo is wonderful as the irrepressible Ethel, a role that garnered an Oscar for Katharine Hepburn in the 1982 film version opposite Henry Fonda in his own Academy Award-winning portrayal of Norman. Billo’s chemistry with Contini is smooth and seemingly effortless as she captures the love of life that has guided Ethel for nearly half-a-century in marriage with her beloved husband.
Phoenix Lawson is a delight as the amiable Billy Jr. Some of the show’s best moments are watching Contini’s reactions as he learns the latest “jingo” of the kids from his young friend, while Lawson shows Billy dutifully tackling various books around the cabin “assigned” to him by Norman.
Sabra Sellers convincingly displays the peevish nature of Chelsea, still carrying the chip on her shoulder alluded to by her mother from years of trying to please her distant father. Kevin Edwards shows the genuine friendliness of Bill, a dentist who doesn’t know how to handle Norman’s brusque and taciturn responses to Bill’s awkward conversation about sleeping arrangements. Craig Phillips finds the humor in the role of Charlie, the mailman who didn’t marry Chelsea because Norman “wouldn’t let” him.
On Golden Pond is a sweet tale of old love and new friendship. Under Freeman’s careful direction, his cast brings out the humanity of Thompson’s interesting characters, even with their foibles, in agreeable fashion.
Play: On Golden Pond
Company: Ozark Actors Theatre
Venue: Cedar Street Playhouse, 701 North Cedar, Rolla, MO
Dates: July 20, 21, 22, 23
Tickets: $14-$22; contact 573-364-9523 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.