Great News: Theatre in the Park has brought back an old favorite. Executive Director Ira David Wood III returns to the stage as Norman Thayer in Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond. Joined on stage by a veteran cast of known Triangle actors, Wood and company bring Thayer's nostalgic Maine tribute to growing old gracefully to a superb reality.
Set alongside one of Maine's many rustic waterways, On Golden Pond tells the tale of the 48th straight year that Norman and Ethel have returned to their beloved cabin by the lake. Waking up to the sound of loons on the water, Norman totters happily downstairs on their first morning, and opens the patio door to listen to the sounds of the house in the early summer breeze. When he touches the screen door, it falls flat onto the patio. Mentally adding it to his list of things to do, Norman returns to the living room, checking the phone to see if it is still in working order. He has a conversation with the operator that tells us Norman is suffering from the onset of Alzheimer's. It is an affliction he handles as gracefully as an old curmudgeon can, deftly assisted by his loving, if long-suffering, wife, who has now joined him from outside, where she has been gathering kindling for the fireplace. There are whitecaps on the water this morning; a moment later, Ethel rejoices at the sound of her beloved loons, spotting a pair on the water of the lake.
In these first few minutes we come to reacquaint ourselves with Norman and Ethel as if they are old friends, as indeed they are. This is a remounting of the show that Theatre in the Park brought to the stage fifteen years ago. Wood reprises his role as Norman, on a set that is a bit more rustic, and a bit more lived-in, than the previous one. That set was wide, white, and expansive. This one is warmer, closer, sweeter somehow. It brings Norman and Ethel closer to us. This is a realistic set, with all the trappings that a half-century of living can bring to it. It is a marvel, deftly designed by Thomas Mauney.
In the space of a fleeting two hours, we spend the summer with Norman and Ethel. It is a bit isolated on Golden Pond; the only visitor is another old friend, Charlie the mailman (Larry Evans), who has been delivering the mail to the residents of the lake since he was old enough to heft a mailbag. He arrives by boat, the quickest means of accessing all the homes. Ethel waves him in, and greets him with a cup of coffee and a sweet. He brings a letter from the Thayers' daughter, Chelsea (Andrea Amthor Twiss), who writes to say that she will be coming by to see them soon, on a trip that will carry she and her new boyfriend, Bill (John Aschenbrenner), on to Europe for their summer vacation.
Thompson's play is a nostalgia piece, wherein not much happens, in a developmental sense, so much as we are able to witness, at the hands of these able veteran performers. There is conflict, of course; Norman's relationship with his daughter is strained, to put it mildly. She and Bill have come with a definite purpose in mind. Bill has a thirteen-year-old son from his first marriage, and once Bill, Jr. (Ford Nelson) has been introduced to her folks, Chelsea asks Mom if he can stay with them for a month, while she and Bill tour Europe. It is an imposition, and Norman is dismayed; what on earth will he do with a teenager underfoot? But the die is cast, and Bill, Jr. settles in.
These veteran Triangle actors worked seamlessly to bring On Golden Pond to life. Wood has "grown into" this role; fifteen years have grayed the hair, and brought him that much closer to the eighty-year age that is Norman. Wood seems to have slipped a bit more easily into the role than before, relishing the part, and sharing a bit more gleefully the many jokes and barbs that eighty years of living have instilled in Norman. Lynda Clark takes on Ethel with a grace that has come from the fifty years Ethel has been sparring with her beloved curmudgeon; the two banter with the easy grace of time spent together. Clark began her Raleigh career at Theatre in the Park twenty-five years ago, and still considers this stage her "home theater." To watch Clark and Wood work together was to see what could only be described as a symbiosis; it is easy to believe that these two people have spent a half-century together. Both Aschenbrenner and Evans, too, are old hands at this game. Evans has been acting in the Triangle for more than two decades; his latest TIP credits include last summer's acclaimed True West, as Austin. Aschenbrenner is actually reprising his role as Bill from TIP's earlier production, and his first role at TIP was some 37 years ago! Even young Ford Nelson is a veteran TIP performer, having first joined Wood onstage in the 42nd rendition of A Christmas Carol. This hand-picked cast of veteran performers brought a smooth and amiable reality to their work. They made this most-enjoyable event as warm and comfortable as a pair of favorite shoes, and we were more than happy to join them along their travels.
Ira David Wood pulls double duty in this production as the director. I first witnessed Wood achieve this remarkable duality with a production of Dangerous Liaisons, a full quarter century ago, and I marveled then at the man's ability to direct a show so successfully while appearing in it. The years have honed his art, and he directs On Golden Pond with a real talent for making illusion appear to be reality. There was quite a modicum of reality in this work, and these five excellent performers brought it to us with panache, grace, and a beauty that only comes with that ages-old commodity of experience.
On Golden Pond continues through Sunday, April 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.