The play On Golden Pond is an old-fashioned, sentimental work about dysfunctional relationships within a family. The original Broadway production, which opened 44 years ago, lasted just 129 performances. Most people remember the 1981 movie, which starred Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress/Best Actor for their roles as Ethel and Norman Thayer.
The production at the Ivoryton Playhouse, playing through June 11, has the services of two seasoned theater veterans in Mia Dillon (Ethel) and James Naughton (Norman). Their presence and acting skills help elevate the quality of the show. Still, On Golden Pond is a play that meanders through well-worn themes with little dramatic effect.
The plot revolves around Ethel and Norman, an older couple we meet at their Maine vacation home during the beginning of the summer season. Norman is crotchety, sarcastic, and seems to like no one. Ethel, however, is vivacious, full of life and embraces the simple joys that avail her like fresh picked strawberries and the loons that reside by their lakeside cabin. The local mailman, a former boyfriend of their only daughter, Chelsea, drops in for the occasional cup of coffee and humorous banter.
During their time at the Maine home, Chelsea pays an unsuspected visit. Estranged from her father - she calls him Norman and there is no embrace when she enters - and accepting of her mother, she brings along her fiance, Billy Ray, and his son, Billy Ray, Jr., a street-wise 13-year-old. The quick visit is strained with old feelings and slights coming to the surface. However, before matters get out of hand, the couple is off to a European vacation sans the boy. Chelsea had asked if they could watch him for the month.
In Act II, Norman and Billy Ray, Jr. have bonded and become pals, most notably through their morning fishing outings. Chelsea and Billy Ray return, now married, and almost immediately the daughter starts harking in about her turbulent relationship with her father. Ethel becomes upset. There’s yelling and then a reconciliation. The same thing, on a more low key note, occurs with her father. Confessions. Tears. Reconciliation. In the final scene of the play, via phone between Los Angeles, where the newlywed couple lives, and the Maine cabin, there is good-natured small talk between all parties, especially between Norman and Billy Ray, Jr.
Playwright Ernest Thompson has crafted two indelible characters in Ethel and Norman, but not much happens during the show and when events come to a head they are resolved in a nanosecond. The relationship between Norman and Billy Ray, Jr., so ripe to expand, just happens. A missed opportunity. Some of Norman’s dialog and references concerning Jews and Blacks come across as inappropriate and dated rather than help develop his persona.
Director Brian J. Feehan looks to animate the production by constantly moving cast members around Marcus Abbott’s befittingly appointed rustic cabin interior. However, some scenes, like an extended sequence on the telephone, goes on for too long. The reconciliation moments are too abruptly staged. Also, a lot of coffee is served (in empty cups), but no one ever drinks.
The reason to take in On Golden Pond is the performances of Mia Dillon and James Naughton. Ms. Dillon, a frequent, and award-winning actress on Connecticut stages, imbues Ethel with a winsome, hearty, and spirited soul. Everytime the play threatens to become too maudlin, Ms. Dillon comes to the rescue. James Naughton, a two-time Tony Award winner, has long been absent from productions in the state. His portrayal of Norman is understated (maybe a bit too much so) as he effectively erects a wall between himself, reality and the people in his life.
The other actors in the show are agreeable, even if they come across as underdeveloped. Stacie Morgan Lewis is fine as Chelsea, displaying the pent-up hostility of a daughter spurned and ignored for so long. I wish Josh Powell, as Billy Ray, had more scenes that allowed him to demonstrate his acting ability. His one confrontational moment with Norman is much too short. Will Clark’s Charlie provides some comedic moments, but his character adds little to the comedy/drama. Sabatino Cruz provides sparks and wakens up the production as the “suck face” Billy Ray, Jr.
On Golden Pond, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through June 11. Click here for dates, times, and ticket Information.