Review: Aging, redemption resonate in Dramaworks’ ‘On Golden Pond’

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By ROBERT HAGELSTEINaaron_bio_pic
Reprinted from lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
Feb. 3, 2018

Palm Beach Dramaworks’ version of “On Golden Pond” returns to what playwright Ernest Thompson originally intended – a less sentimental, more honest rendering of what we all ultimately face: aging and as with many families, disconnection and hopefully reconciliation. While this is the stuff of most great American dramas, the playwright inextricably links humor and pathos, leading to the ultimate question: What does it mean to be? This is a tender rendition, performed by an interracial cast under the direction and inspiration of Paul Stancato.

Novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner once said, “We live too shallowly in too many places.” Not Norman and Ethel Thayer, who for 48 years have made their summer home on Golden Pond in Maine the bulwark of their lives, raising their only child Chelsea during their summers away from Wilmington, Delaware. Dramaworks’ striking set characterizes the rusticity of lakeside living as well as years of memories, both happy and hurtful. It is in some state of disrepair. Take that cranky screen door which is always falling down for instance, good for laughs but serving as a metaphor for aging and neglect.

Norman is a retired university literature professor on the eve of his 80th birthday. He has his routines in the cabin which mostly revolve around arranging his fishing hats, and curmudgeonly railing at the annoyance du jour, but now he’s also having memory difficulties, perhaps the early signs of dementia. He’s convinced that his impending status as an octogenarian will mark his last year at Golden Pond. “Oh shut up,” the ballast in his life, devoted wife Ethel, says to all that death talk. And, then there is Chelsea, a chip off the old block of Norman. They’ve become ever more remote with Ethel as the reconciler.

A touching secondary storyline involves Chelsea’s once-upon-a-time boyfriend when she was growing up, a “townie,” who is now the mailman, delivering the mail by boat to the residents around the pond. Charlie Martin is still in love with Chelsea, but while that ship has sailed, he gives the play many nostalgic moments as we glimpse at those yesterdays.

The rising action of the play is a letter that declares Chelsea will be arriving from California with her fiancé Bill Ray to celebrate Norman’s 80th birthday. Unannounced is that they are bringing along Bill’s 15-year-old son Billy. And, as the first act ends, we learn that Billy will be left with Chelsea’s parents for a month at Golden Pond as Bill and Chelsea travel through Europe. The clock is wound and the stage is set for change.

With the opening of Act II, we find that Norman and Billy have created interesting new lives for themselves during that stay. Then with Chelsea’s return and at Ethel’s urging, Norman and Chelsea finally have their moment of acquiescent truth. Bill and Chelsea were married while in Belgium. The screen door has apparently been fixed. And so life moves on in unexpected ways.

Director Paul Stancato makes the most of the play’s many bittersweet comic opportunities, having the actors pause for a beat, simultaneously capturing those humorous and heartrending moments. He sets the play in 1988 before the ubiquity of cell phones and the associated diversions of the Internet. Stancato is an accomplished musical director as well and he finds rhythms in the play, almost pacing it as a piece of music with an Andante tempo.

John Felix excels as Norman, who persistently laments about how little time there is in his future.  He wears “curmudgeon” as a badge of honor, and yet Felix’s interpretation makes him likable – even lovable – approaching the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero, evoking a sense of pity and fear. After all, Norman’s fate of physical and cognitive decline is one which awaits most who live long enough.

Felix seizes the opportunities to embellish his death obsession with laughs, the perfect tonic for his depression. He is particularly effective during those moments. He explains to Ethel that this summer he’s been casually looking for a job because “I’m in the market for a last hurrah.” To which Ethel responds, “Why can’t you just pick berries and catch fish and read books, and enjoy this sweet, sweet time?”

Here the dark comedy becomes serious. Felix’s demeanor changes to a heartfelt confession: “Do you want to know why I came back so fast with my little bucket? I got to the end of our lane, and I … couldn’t remember where the old town road was. I went a little way into the woods, and nothing looked familiar, not one tree. And it scared me half to death. So I came running back home here, to you, to see your pretty face, and to feel that I was safe. That I was still me.”

Pat Bowie’s Ethel is the “great woman” behind her now declining man. She lovingly replies “Well, you’re safe, you old poop. And you’re definitely still you …” Bowie carries a heavy burden of Ethel’s constant sacrifice and devotion to the love of her life, trying to keep his thoughts of death under control: “I swear you just get more morbid every year.”

She is always listening for the loons, a metaphor for life and in her mind capable of speaking to her. While she is the positive to Norman’s negative, Bowie’s portrayal of Ethel shows vulnerability as the years and the estrangement between her husband and daughter have taken their toll on her as well.

Karen Stephens as Chelsea longs for love from her father but the chasm which has built over the years seems insurmountable. Stephens brings sublimated pain into her role, expecting so little from her father, accustomed now to call her mother “Mommy” and her father “Norman.” She even sets up her fiancé so he is already on guard before meeting Norman, “Bill, you want to visit the men’s room before you go through the shock of meeting my father?”

Chelsea still feels “like a little girl” whenever she returns to Golden Pond. Stephens channels that pent-up anger saying to her mother, “I act like a big person everywhere else. I do. I’m in charge of Los Angeles. There’s just something about coming back here that makes me feel like a little fat girl.” She goes on to accuse her mother, “Where were you all that time? You never bailed me out. … You don’t know what it’s like being reminded how worthless you are every time that old son of a bitch crosses your path.”

Ethel does not back down, even slapping her daughter. “That old son of a bitch happens to be my husband. I’m sorry, Chelsea. That he’s not always kind. It’s not … always easy for me either. You’re such a nice person, can’t you think of something nice to say?” With that she plants a seed for reconciliation between husband and daughter.

Jim Ballard comically plays Bill Ray, Chelsea’s fiancé, nervously stumbling into the cabin with their suitcases, convinced he’s seen a bear. His first encounter with Norman is especially amusing. Ballard plays the foil to Felix’s Norman, clearly ill at ease, not only in meeting Norman but left alone while the others go down to see the lake. He tries to bring up the sleeping arrangements, his expecting to sleep with Chelsea while visiting though they are not yet married (after all, it was the times and these are two vastly different generations). This results in an awkward but funny give and take.

But as Bill has been forewarned about Norman, Ballard turns serious, even admitting to the similarities between Norman and his daughter. His monologue is in contrast to his initial unease. “Chelsea told me all about you, about how you like to have a good time with people’s heads. She does it, too, sometimes, and sometimes I can get into it. Sometimes not. I just want you to know that I’m very good at recognizing crap when I hear it.”

This “speech” as Norman calls it begrudgingly commands Norman’s respect. Ballard has appeared on the Dramaworks stage 12 times and shows his gift to deliver both dramatic as well as the comedic moments.

Paul Tei plays Charlie, a local who has long loved Chelsea, motoring around the lake in the summer to deliver the mail. Tei is perfect for the part. His infectious goofy laugh reaches out to the audience. He poignantly relates his memories to Chelsea about her camp years, when he used to help his uncle deliver the mail and when they came by the camp. “I’d swing the bag out onto the dock, and then I’d pick up the outgoing mail, and somewhere in there, I’d look for you. And you’d always be standing in the back, kind of all alone. And you’d smile at me, and I’d feel like I was the best thing going.”

It’s such a wistful memory exchange between Chelsea and Charlie, and so tenderly delivered by Tei. This leads to Chelsea and Ethel singing the camp song, which concludes with, “But we’ll remember our years, On Golden Pond.” Both mother and daughter attended Camp Koochakiyia as kids, another hat tip to the passage of time and continuity.

Young Casey Butler last appeared at Dramaworks in the challenging play “Acadia.” He is already a seasoned pro.  Now as Billy Ray, Bill’s fifteen year old son, he expresses the unbounded energy and innocence of youth.

When he and Norman first meet, it’s as if two different species are in shock looking each other over, an antediluvian confronting a Marty McFly. Ultimately, both are redeemed by one another. He is the grandchild Norman never had, and Norman is the teacher who will make a difference in Billy’s life. Norman is now a different man with a reason to live. Casey’s portrayal of Billy as Norman’s lifesaver is spot on.

Dramaworks’ production is firmly grounded in spectacular scenic design by Bill Clark, his Dramaworks debut. It evokes all the themes of the play, but in particular the Thayer’s love of Golden Pond, its woods and its wildlife. The wood pillars of the structure seem to reach for the sky, the forest in the background, the solid stone mantelpiece displaying the age of its construction, 1917, presumably the year Ethel’s father built the cabin. Ethel’s toy doll, Elmer, now 65 years old, sits on the mantle shelf along with photographs, and many others strewn about the living room. It’s an award-winning set, a perfect backdrop for the action on stage.

Brad Pawlak’s sound design reproduces the eerie calls of the loons across the lake. Add the sounds of the forest, the fluttering of bird wings, even the insidious insects, Charlie’s boat approaching, as well as the rising wind in September, all so evocative of a summer in Maine. Musical interludes such as “Moonglow” and “Sentimental Journey” during scene changes contribute to the ambiance.

Lighting design by Donald Edmund Thomas captures the time changes, from the deep dark of night to the blazing sun off the pond, as well as enhancing the changing emotions on stage.

Resident award-winning costume designer Brian O’Keefe emphasizes the casual dress of country living, as well as Bill’s comical 1980s California-style jacket and pants. His rendering of Billy when he first arrives reminded me of Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.” It is an amusing touch by O’Keefe.

Veteran stage manager James Danford keeps things moving along, all props in place for the five scene changes in the play.

Dramaworks’ production of “On Golden Pond” is a deeply satisfying play, perhaps the perfect tonic for our times and the theatre company’s traditional audience.

Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.

To read more reviews by Robert Hagelstein, as well as his writings covering topics including business, literature and politics, go to lacunaemusing.blogspot.com.

Pictured above: From left, Pat Bowie, John Felix, Casey Butler, Karen Stephens and Jim Ballard. The play opens Feb. 2 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in downtown West Palm Beach. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

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