by Hugh Hunter
“On Golden Pond” (1979), by Ernest Thompson, was a hit Broadway play before it became an Oscar-winning movie. A revival, now running at Stagecrafters under Director Mariangela Saavedra, retells the story of an aging couple’s struggle to find peace and purpose at the end of their lives.
The Thayer family has vacationed at Golden Pond in rural Maine for 50 years. Patriarch Norman is about to celebrate his 80th birthday, and he knows his memory is failing. He is full of gallows humor and sees death everywhere. The porch screen door has come off its hinges, tree leaves turn color in September, and the family name is dying out, as daughter Chelsea is childless.
Wife Ethel (Noël Hanley) tries to breathe life into Norman as she marshals help from everyone in the family circle. Charlie (Dan Shefer), the chirpy mailman, stops by to chat. Chelsea’s fiancé, Bill Ray (Jim Broyles), attempts some male bonding. But his teenage son, Billy Ray (Jared Taylor), succeeds where others fail and becomes Norman’s fishing buddy. (I guess it’s a guy thing.)
John Devennie stars as Norman, a retired English professor who uses irascible repartee like a weapon to keep his own family members at a distance. Chelsea, played by Anna Horsey, is similarly caustic, but we understand her moodiness; Norman created it in the way he related to her as a child.
We understand little else. “On Golden Pond” is all about observing Norman’s morbidity and the frustration he causes in others. The tension between him and his estranged daughter is the only major conflict, slow to emerge and slow to resolve. Yet, in its glacial pace, we learn little about Norman himself. How did he get this way?
By comparison, Ebenezer Scrooge was also a curmudgeon. But the Ghost of Christmas Past clues you in on his true reality, and you become invested in Scrooge’s struggle. But Norman’s curmudgeonly nature is just a given. Like Scrooge, he finds peace of mind in the end, but he is just a passive recipient of what others do for him — Chelsea’s efforts at rapprochement, the buddy bonding of young Billy and the good will of everyone.
As to production, all the pieces are in place. Scott Killinger designed a magnificent set, a sturdy wood cabin where you can see forest and pond through the rear window as in a View Master. The costume design, lights and period music between scenes and the acting are all artful and strong.
For me, the problem is the script itself, and I have never understood the many accolades “On Golden Pond” has received. Norman is like a troubled child. His problems come out of nowhere, and he does nothing to earn his own redemption.
Ed. Note: “On Golden Pond” opened Off-Off-Broadway in 1978, then moved to Broadway, where it ran for about 400 performances. It was nominated for several Drama Desk Awards, including “Outstanding New Play.” The film version, released in 1981, garnered many awards, including a “Best Actor” Oscar for Henry Fonda, “Best Actress” Oscar for Katherine Hepburn and “Best Adapted Screenplay” for Ernest Thompson.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “On Golden Pond” will run through Sept 30. For reservations: 215-247-9913 or www.stagecrafters.org.