A Family Study

LTW's 'On Golden Pond' glows while disregarding the script's dark shadows

Over the past couple of months, old movies have unspooled all over Tucson stages. The UA offered the original theatrical version of The Philadelphia Story; another troupe mounted Deathtrap, and now Live Theatre Workshop revives the stage version of Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond.

The best thing about LTW's production is that it takes the script on its own terms, never mimicking the Henry Fonda/Katharine Hepburn movie (or at least what I remember of the movie, which I haven't seen since it was released 25 years ago).

Director Jeremy Thompson (no relation to the author) emphasizes the abundant comic elements of the script and downplays the potential weepiness at the end. We follow elderly Norman and Ethel Thayer through their 48th summer at their cabin at Golden Pond, Maine; Norman is forgetful, and his heart is giving out, and at the end, it looks quite likely that he won't have a 49th summer on the lake. Actually, that seems evident rather early on. But this is no teary two-hour farewell, and it's not even much of a sentimental journey. It's a study of two people who've managed to have a good marriage for a long, long time, and how Norman comes to terms not so much with his impending death as with his semi-estranged daughter and her soon-to-be stepson.

It's a very funny study. Norman is a world-class curmudgeon, but not really a nasty one. Everything he says gently mocks the mundane foolishness of others. "Well, look at you," Ethel beams when Norman comes out dressed for his birthday party. "You're wearing a tie."

"I know," he replies. "I put it there."

And when the couple's 40-some-year-old daughter, Chelsea, shows up at the cabin for the first time in years and declares that she wants to establish a normal father-daughter relationship, the death-obsessed Norman deadpans, "Oh, just in the nick of time."

John Mills carefully avoids playing Norman as a mean old coot. The benefit is that we feel good about laughing at his lines rather than feeling guilty for laughing along with a spiteful old fart. The drawback is that we miss the bitterness that would come naturally to this character, and we can't quite understand why Chelsea has been so intimidated by him all these years. He doesn't wield his quick, dry wit like a weapon, so where's the threat?

So with Norman essentially a cranky but nice guy from the beginning, there's nowhere for the character to go as the play progresses. The arrival of the boy, 15-year-old Billy (gamely played by the easygoing, likable Paul Matlock), at least motivates Norman to alter his routine. Luckily, playwright Thompson doesn't make Billy a deeply troubled kid who needs to be turned around by a wise but flawed old man, nor is Norman a desiccated misanthrope who is softened when he bonds with a teenager. These are just two guys, born about 60 years apart, who manage to like each other without trying very hard. This is not the stuff of dramatic tension, but it's refreshing in its avoidance of stereotypes and clichés.

Mills is obviously fond of his character, yet he doesn't sugarcoat Norman. Apparently, Norman has always talked a lot about death, but more for its shock value as a conversation-stopper; now, though, Mills makes it clear that Norman is serious about the subject, and frightened, even as he continues to joke about it.

Mills also has a good rapport with Jan Aalberts as Ethel; the characters' shared affection easily comes through, and Aalberts plays Ethel as a loving, patient, but fairly no-nonsense wife, not one embittered by decades of putting up with Norman. It's easy to see how this woman can still look forward to a summer of berry picking, skinny-dipping and keeping the old cabin in order, and for once, her desire to commune with the loons on the lake doesn't seem hopelessly loopy or out of character.

Kristi Loera does a nice job as Chelsea; it's easy to forget that Loera has a good touch with normal characters, because she plays so many wackos. Tony Eckstat is very appealing as the local mailman who never got over not being able to marry Chelsea, his girlfriend years back, yet manages to laugh about it and everything else. And Steve McKee is good in his brief appearance as Chelsea's slightly uptight but generally level-headed current boyfriend.

So while the few dark shadows lurking around On Golden Pond may not be evident at Live Theatre Workshop, the play does benefit from a production bathed in a gentle golden glow.

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