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Although I had not seen the original 1979 Broadway production – and had staunchly avoided playwright Ernest Thompson’s 1981 Hollywood adaptation – I thought I knew all I cared to know about On Golden Pond when it finally caught up with me at Theatre Charlotte in 2006. Though unsolicited excerpts flashed at me on TV, I had become all-too-familiar with Henry Fonda’s crustiness as Norman Thayer Jr., Katharine Hepburn’s gritty steadfastness as his wife, Ethel, the whininess of Jane Fonda as their daughter, Chelsea, and the gooey honey that bound them all together. Were there other characters in the script? That was one of the unexpected delights I discovered as my first full encounter with On Golden Pond, like so many others with The Sound of Music, turned out to be better than I feared. Yet, as I also find with that Rodgers and Hammerstein evergreen, there's a recoil effect that comes with intervening years, and I was dreading On Golden Pond once again as it opened at Central Piedmont Community College.
Directed by Marilyn Carter, the stage version proved to be somewhat sweeter than the film, largely because Elyse Williams gave a sunnier, more domesticated rendering of Ethel, dispelling the hardy Yankee, outdoorsy Hepburn effect. Williams and Tom Scott were less iconic and godly as the elder Thayers than Hepburn and Henry, so Amy Pearre Dunn as Chelsea seemed far more sensible and far less petulant than Jane. Toss in the other people who enter the Thayers' summer home in Maine, and the story seems less about age-old family animosities and far more mundane.
After many years of estrangement, Chelsea, with her dentist fiancé and his son, arrive to celebrate the dour Norman's 80th birthday. The betrothed couple presumes to impose twice upon their hosts' hospitality, sleeping together in the same bed and then – with Norman's grumbling permission – dropping off Billy Jr. for a month while they fly off to Europe. The Billy invasion has unexpected results, shifting the story away from centering exclusively on the Thayers and their parenting. Ultimately, it also takes in the tribulations of Norman's aging, his surprising capacity for growth, Ethel's sweet forbearance, and the realities of a successful marriage.
This is the penultimate show at Pease Auditorium, which will be demolished after Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap plays there this summer. It's hard to think of any script that has ever fit Pease's squat stage better than Thompson's rustic yarn, for James Duke's set design takes fine advantage of Pease's panoramic width, and the dwarfish staircase up to the Thayers' bedrooms hardly seems to matter. I can't remember if there ever was a curtain drawn across this epic stage, but a curtain would have been largely redundant when the elderly couple arrived, for all the furnishings were covered in drop cloths until, one by one, the Thayers lifted and folded them. Thompson showed a fondness for such elaborate episodes of stage business to kick off his scenes, but it grew less effective in subsequent scenes, where the scurrying business veered toward farce.
The sweeter Ethel in the CPCC Theatre production allows Scott, as a retired Penn professor, to venture close to maximum orneriness – because he's the one formidable figure on stage. His words stung when Norman and Chelsea had their long-delayed showdown, but part of their impact came from Dunn's stunned reaction, so I could believe that Norman was being almost casually honest rather than intentionally hurtful. Spoken by Scott instead of a cinematic icon, Norman's inbred racism also counted for more.
The big dramatic moments of On Golden Pond, as well as most of the comedic moments, come because Norman is such a thorny force to be reckoned with – and so insistently morbid. In his confrontations with Chelsea, her fiancé, and Billy, Scott not only wore Norman's armor well, but also showed that it could be pierced. With Ethel, he could be more vulnerable and yielding, which made the climax of the final scene very moving.
Williams as Ethel was more than sufficiently cheery for Norman to spout all his morbid thoughts in self-defense. Sugary, yes, but never cloying. What surprised me most about Williams' performance opposite Scott was her consistent strength paired with one of the most robust acting voices in town. She was not only as audible as Scott in combat with Pease's wayward acoustics, she was more consistently intelligible, for Scott occasionally softened his projection or toyed with a regional accent. There was easily enough force from Williams for us to grasp that Ethel was the decider of where things belonged in the house, yet the nuances of her deference toward Norman and its impact upon her relationship with Chelsea were also preserved.
I didn't get the impression that Dunn was in her early forties, so I missed the overlay that Chelsea is missing her child-bearing years in her bitterness. Unresolved issues with her parents seemed nettlesome rather than crippling, with Scott taking on more of the animosity between father and daughter. Chelsea's grudges against Mom and Dad were more evenly split here. At her point of aging, Dunn didn't seem as desperately in need of healing as Norman did, facing the deterioration of his memory. Paul Gibson as Bill really did seem to be the adult upgrade Chelsea needed for her second marriage, showing his mettle when Norman tested it, tellingly enriching our portrait of his perspective father-in-law.
We would hardly miss mailman Charley Martin if Thompson had surgically removed him from his scenario, but Todd Magnusson makes him winsome enough, a garrulous exemplar of local color and a longtime admirer of Chelsea, though he could have been a tad surer in picking up and remembering his lines. Stepp Nadelman has more onerous difficulties to overcome in his first big Charlotte outing as Billy. The youngster made himself better heard than many older actors have at Pease Auditorium, especially when it counted. Nadelson is no longer at an age where merely standing there and smiling would make him appealing, yet Thompson lavishes a considerable amount of texture upon Billy, commensurate with his ultimate importance to Norman. Although there were occasional drop-offs in his projection, Nadelson's acting never flagged.
On Golden Pond continues through Sunday, April 15. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.