Reviewed by George Basler
The Golden Pond in On Golden Pond is a lovely vacation spot, filled with memories, that Norman and Ethel Thayer have called their summer home for nearly 50 years.
And lovely is also the word that describes Ernest Thompson’s play, which has become a staple for community theaters across the country. It’s a tender, if modest, effort that deals with the themes of old age, reconciliation and the ability of decent, if flawed, characters to muddle through the journey we call life.
The play’s charms are on full display in a commendable production, directed by Todd E. Smith, which opened this past weekend (April 4-5)at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center in Owego.
What could easily be trite and sentimental takes on emotional resonance in the hands of a strong cast, headed by Bob Finley as Norman and Linda Fenescey as Ethel.
On Golden Pond takes place during the course of one summer at the Thayers’ cottage. To be honest, not a lot happens plot-wise. The play is more a character study told through a series of everyday events.
The focal points are the relationship between the crotchety Norman and the long-suffering Ethel, and the estrangement between the couple and their adult daughter, Chelsea, well-played by Alicia Loso.
While the play abounds with light comedy, there is also a poignancy as hints are dropped that Norman’s failing health may make this the last summer the couple will spend at their beloved summer retreat. In a real sense, they are saying their good-byes to Golden Pond.
The play was a hit on Broadway in 1978 and was later made into a feature film with Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn as the Thayers and Jane Fonda as the daughter. (The fact that the older and younger Fonda had a thorny relationship added a piquant touch to the movie.)
Stepping into these shoes is a real challenge, and it’s a credit to both Finley and Fenescey that they put their own stamps on the roles.
Fenescey is rock-solid as the honest and sensible Ethel. She is totally natural in the role as she conveys understanding and acceptance, as well as affection, for her difficult husband. She is especially good in the last scene, which is bathed in the bitter sweetness of a late summer’s day.
As Norman, Finley has the showier role. He has the play’s funniest lines, mostly barbs aimed at the other characters. But Finley also conveys the sense that Norman’s bluster is a mechanism he has used to keep other people at an emotional distance, and a tactic he is now using to disguise his fears of mental and physical decline.
The supporting cast is equally solid. Terry Mesko as Charlie, the local mailman with a lifelong crush on Chelsea, avoids the trap of playing the character as a total country bumpkin. Instead, he conveys the sense that Charlie knows his life peaked at a young age but is carrying on nonetheless, with no self pity.
Randy Kerr has a strong scene as Chelsea’s maybe husband, who turns the tables on the crusty Norman. Loso makes the audience understand how her wisecracking exterior hides emotional slights she suffered as a child from both parents.
Finally, Noah McMullin is totally natural as Kerr’s son and has good stage presence as the teenager who brings a sense of new life to the aging Norman. However, McMullin doesn’t quite catch his character’s smart-mouthed attitude when he first arrives at Golden Pond.
The Ti-Ahwaga production has its flaws. Some of the transitions between comic and more serious moments are abrupt and jarring, and the reconciliation between Norman and Chelsea happens too casually and doesn’t ring true. This may, however, be the result of Thompson’s writing, not the Ti-Ahwaga production.
But no one can deny that On Golden Pond has been a real audience pleaser since it first opened. The balancing act of comedy, poignancy and uplift is a formula that can charm even hardened theatergoers, and it is well carried out by the Ti-Ahwaga production.
The play goes down as easily as a lemonade on warm summer’s day. And, in the end, it’s quite touching.
IF YOU GO: On Golden Pond finishes its two-weekend run this coming weekend (April 11-13) at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $18, with senior tickets available for $15 on Sundays and student tickets at $10 on Fridays. To reserve tickets, call (607) 687-2130 or go online to www.tiahwaga.com.