By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Reprinted from lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
January 20, 2018
“On Golden Pond,” Ernest Thompson’s soulfully poignant play about aging and reconciliation, opens at Palm Beach Dramaworks Feb. 2, and continues through Feb. 25. It’s set in a cabin in Maine where Norman and Ethel Thayer have made their summer home for 48 years on their beloved lake.
Perhaps one thinks of the haunting figure of Henry Fonda from the movie version of “On Golden Pond.” His portrayal was unique in that he played opposite his own daughter, Jane Fonda, and they had issues in their real-life relationship like those portrayed in the film.
That image endeared the film, but it gave the work a more sentimental, melodramatic tilt. It took a 2005 revival in New York City with James Earl Jones to break through the tears and turn the play into something more substantive – as intended by the playwright. This was achieved with a mostly Afro-American cast and with playwright Thompson slightly revising his script for that, although specific black culture references were not the substance of those changes.
Dramaworks follows with a multicultural cast of actors, featuring the retired university professor Norman, his devoted wife Esther and their daughter, Chelsea, who has that tenuous, remote relationship with her father.
The heart of the play is about aging and its attendant tribulations, physical and mental, as well as finding ways to reconcile relationships. This is especially difficult for an accomplished university professor such as Norman, about to become an octogenarian. In the shadows are the discord and the resulting estrangement with his only child that stealthily built up over the years.
It takes the catalyst of something Norman never had in his life, the unexpected introduction of a 13-year-old boy who comes with Chelsea and her fiancé, Bill Ray, for a stay at the cabin that 48th year. Billy, Bill Ray’s son from his first marriage, is a handful but he and Norman unpredictably bond. It catapults the play to a heartwarming denouement.
According to William Hayes, Dramaworks’ producing artistic director, the play is not about race, it’s about human beings.
“It reminds us what we have in common, not our differences. I felt our audience would appreciate comfort for the soul and this play answers that longing,” says Hayes.
Director Paul Stancato says the themes in the play are universal: aging, relationships with adult children and grandparents.
“The playwright deals with them head on. I’ve set the play in 1988, perhaps a more accepting world than when the play was first produced ten years earlier, but before the ubiquity of Internet distractions,” says Stancato. “It’s only about being human which matters. Audiences will let the color go immediately and see the people. The millennial generation is also represented in this play and so it works the other way too, they adjusting to grandparents.”
Karen Stephens, who plays Chelsea, had never read the play before she was called for the part and immediately loved the humor and universality of family.
“The play is different from the film, which given that medium needed a more developed background,” Stephens says.
She recommends throwing out preconceived notions based on the film. “Instead, be captivated by the original. In fact, the playwright himself advises against sentimentality. There is so much humor in the play that it opens you up to pathos.”
Stephens says that the biggest challenge in playing Chelsea is to manifest the resentment the character feels and at the same time not being seen negatively. “It’s about striking a delicate balance.”
Pat Bowie, who was so deeply affecting in her portrayal as the matriarch in Dramaworks’ “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2013, now plays the devoted Ethel.
One of her favorite parts of the production is when they leave the house for the summer, her character noting “the loons have come to say goodbye.” And when she asks Chelsea, who is so much like her father, “You are such a nice person – can’t you think of something nice to say to your father?”
“In effect, this plants the seeds of reconciliation,” says Bowie,
The other actors in the play are also Dramaworks veterans, John Felix as Norman; Jim Ballard as Bill Ray; Paul Tei as Charlie, a local who has long loved Chelsea; and Casey Butler as Billy.
Scenic design is by Bill Clark, in his Dramaworks debut, costume design is by Brian O’Keefe, lighting design is by Donald Edmund Thomas, and sound design is by Brad Pawlak.
Palm Beach Dramaworks is located in The Don & Ann Brown Theatre at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.
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