On Golden Pond
Through April 23
Theatre in the Park, Raleigh
The thought, though it’s more than a touch morbid, applies as much to summer idylls as it does to theatrical productions, regardless of their ambition or achievement: only a finite number is allotted to any of us. What comes after is, at best, unclear.
Playwright Ernest Thompson’s family drama became a part of motion picture history when the Oscar-winning film version, a box-office behemoth with Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda, became the second-highest grossing movie of 1981. (The top? Raiders of the Lost Ark). A television adaptation of the play starring the reunited stars of The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, ran on CBS in 2001, one year before Ira David Wood III directed and starred in a production of the show for Theatre in the Park.
It is a work preoccupied with last hurrahs and the proper way of approaching potentially permanent departures. Norman Thayer (Wood), a crusty patriarch whose faculties are starting to fade, has developed a macabre sense of humor and finds refuge in old newspaper job listings to abut his slipping memory. His longtime wife, Ethel (Lynda Clark), frets that this might be their final summer at the family’s Maine lake cottage. When their estranged daughter, Chelsea (Andrea Amthor Twiss), arrives in mid-play with a new fiancé and potential son-in-law in tow, the impetus to resolve old resentments between father and child takes on greater urgency.
On Thomas Mauney’s atmospheric cabin set, the actors and director resist some, but not all, of the sentimental notes in Thompson’s script. As they have in other productions (including repeated stands of The Lion in Winter), Clark and Wood ably convey the warmth of an old married couple and the issues long unresolved between them. Twiss differentiates between the levels of provisional acceptance her character has received from her mother and father. John Aschenbrenner is winning as Chelsea’s beau, Bill, a nice guy who’ll put up with only so much of Norman’s surliness, and newcomer Ford Nelson animates Billy, a sullen son who finds a common chord with Norman.
Norman’s crust goes considerably deeper than it did the last time Wood performed in the role; thankfully, there’s no magic change of heart on his part when Chelsea at last addresses her father’s lifelong aloofness. Indeed, it’s hard to tell if any significant change has occurred, or just a much-needed clearing of the air between the two. The play’s medically induced crisis remains mawkish, briefly plunging the final scene into melodrama before the characters, and show, recover their footing.
During his final appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, the terminally ill songwriter Warren Zevon remarked, “Enjoy every sandwich.” That sentiment runs through Thompson’s script, undergirding a production in which theater veterans contemplate all that’s gone before and what remains to come.
On Golden Pond