On Golden Pond
By: Karen Isaacs - Jun 09, 2023
Watching two consummate actors get everything from a character is such a pleasure that it doesn’t matter if the play is less than stellar.
Mia Dillon and James Naughton are doing that through Sunday, June 11 at Ivoryton Playhouse in On Golden Pond.
You may recall the 1981 movie that starred Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn with Jane Fonda playing the daughter. The 1979 play by Ernest Thompson (he also wrote the screenplay) can be sentimental and predictable. But with Naughton and Dillon in the leads, you will be willing to suspend your critical judgment about the play.
Both the film and the play follow the same plot outline; the film added some even “hokier” stuff.
Ethel and Norman Thayer return to Golden Pond, the lake and cabin in Maine where Ethel spent summers as a child and to which they have returned every year. As Ethel comments, the loons welcome them back. But Ethel is 69, and Norman is about to turn 80. He has heart palpitations, and his memory is failing. Is it the beginning of dementia? Clearly, he never was an “easy” man and age has intensified his more judgmental and criticizing ways.
Over the course of the summer, we see Norman age both physically and mentally. We learn of the history between him and their daughter, Chelsea. You know the relationship isn’t the best when she refers to Ethel as “Mommy” but Norman as “Norman.”
What has gone wrong? It’s not clear, except that she always felt the need to live up to his standards and gain his approval which she felt she never got.
The main event of the summer – each month (from May to September) is a different scene – is Chelsea’s arrival with her new boyfriend, Bill Ray, and his 13-year-old son, Billy.
Here’s where the problems in believability begin. Chelsea, who doesn’t have a great relationship with her father and seldom visits, asks the older couple to let Billy stay with them for a month while she and his father go to Europe. The reason – a boy that age would be bored in Europe. The question is why would he find a month with older people he doesn’t know more engaging?
But he and Norman get along – Norman picks up some of Billy’s slang, encourages him to read classic books (Treasure Island) and takes him fishing daily.
As the summer ends, Chelsea returns to pick up Billy and to take a stab at having a better relationship with Norman. It seems to happen almost miraculously, even after her reluctance to try. Another moment of suspended disbelief.
The play closes with Norman’s heart palpitations worse and the two closing up the house until next year. You wonder if Norman will be there.
Naughton makes the most of Norman’s eccentricities including his constant talking and joking about death and dying, Norman may be getting more and more forgetful and increasingly crotchety but Naughton also shows us the deep affection and love he has for Ethel. He doesn’t overdo the physical signs of Norman’s aging – his walk and posture modify but only enough to indicate the changes subtly.
As Ethel, Dillon conveys the other side of aging – still energetic, involved with the world, and enjoying life. You have a sense that Norman may never have truly enjoyed things. She also convinces us that while she may at times want to kill Norman, she loves him deeply, perhaps even because of his flaws.
The four other members of the cast are very good. Stacie Morgain Lewis is fine as Chelsea, still resentful after all these years. But at times you really don’t understand what the resentment is about and why it has continued into her forties. Josh Powell is good as her boyfriend, Bill Ray. He is the only one who confronts and explains Norman’s modus operandi. Will Clark as the postman (who delivers by boat) is there for some humor and to help provide background information.
Sabatino Cruz is excellent as the thirteen-year-old Billy Ray, Jr. He manages to convey the pseudo-independence with the smart-aleck kid trying to be “cool.” Never does he become obnoxious. You like him and you see the relationship develop with Norman.
The scenic and lighting design by Marcus Abbott is terrific – the cabin features paneled walls, the comfortable but not chic furniture, and the old photos scattered about the room.
Director Brian J. Feehan does a fine job with this stellar cast. The play runs slightly over two hours with intermission.
One thing you should know. Norman at one point in the play expresses some negative language and stereotypes about Jews and other ethnic groups. I was told by the theater that the author refused to allow them to cut those lines and, obviously, he did not offer to rewrite them. His explanation was that as people start through dementia, they often express unacceptable ideas. That may be so, but it does color our view of Norman, a retired professor of literature.
Make a point of going to Ivoryton to see this fine cast. The performances will help you overlook the flaws in the play.
For tickets, visit IvorytonPlayhouse.org.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com