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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018 7 months ago

'On Golden Pond' finds laughter and tears in transitory human life at The Players

This Ernest Thompson play is still golden 40 years after it was written, but it's tarnished with just a few dated references.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” (1979) is the latest offering in The Players Centre for Performing Art’s Summer Sizzler series. Coincidentally, it’s all about summer. And the big chill that inevitably follows.

The Thayers have a summer cabin by a lake up in Maine. (Strictly speaking, it’s a pond.) Norman Thayer Jr. (Jay Bowman) is a retired professor of English. He’s pushing 80, with a bad heart, and a temper to match. He uses his caustic, erudite wit like brass knuckles. Norman fears he’s losing his wits — and obsessively talks about death. (He has reason to fear.) Ethel (Lynne Doyle), his 60-something wife, stands up to him — and constantly patches up the victims of his cutting words.

Before long, the Thayers’ estranged 42-year-old daughter Chelsea (Cindy Schlotterback) appears, along with her dentist fiancé, Bill (Scott Ehrenpreis), and his 13-year-old son, Bill Jr. (Grayson Andrasi). Chelsea’s recently divorced, newly engaged and bitter. She blames her distant, hypercritical father for her long string of failed relationships.

Jay Bowman, Grayson Andrasi and Lynne Doyle perform in "On Golden Pond." Courtesy photo

To give this one a fighting chance, Norman and Ethel agree to watch Bill Jr. while Chelsea and Bill vacation in Europe. For the rest of the summer, Norman basically adopts Bill Jr. He teaches his instant grandson the joys of reading and fishing; Bill Jr. teaches his instant grandfather the joys of raunchy teen slang. Charlie (Joshua Brin) periodically shows up in his boat to bring the mail and comic relief. (Chuckling Charlie is Chelsea’s first boyfriend — goodhearted, and possibly simple-minded.) Summer inevitably ends. Chelsea returns from the trip and tries to make peace with her aging father while there’s still time.  

The excellent cast does a fine job under Sara Logan’s direction. She finds a fresh take and doesn’t copy Mark Rydell’s 1981 movie. But she doesn’t bend over backwards to avoid it either. Aside from a few bits of business (Norman’s silly fishing hats; an unhinged screen door that’s always falling), most of the comedy is verbal and character-based. There’s a heaping helping of sentimentality, too. Logan doesn’t shy about scooping it on.

This vacation of the mind comes together with Jeff Weber’s stunningly detailed set and Tim Beltley’s character-defining costumes. Daniel Polk’s lighting puts everything in a warm light.

Scott Ehrenpreis and Cindy Schlotterback act in a scene in "On Golden Pond." Courtesy photo

When it isn’t tugging on your heartstrings, the script whacks your funny bone. Curmudgeonly Norman gets most of the laugh lines. (Like Doc Martin or the evil puppet in “Magic,” he says what most of us only think.) That’s always comedy gold.

The play itself is still golden, if tarnished with a few dated references. Norman (a retired professor of literature) is still wrapping his mind around the fact that lesbians and Italians actually live in Maine. The production is set in the present, so that's not quite believable.

Anachronisms aside, the story is smartly written and follows a foolproof template. The playwright creates characters you love, gives them problems and then solves their problems. It’s as simple as that. When the title of the play is “On Golden Pond,” a happy ending is a safe bet. (As opposed to, say “Pond of Terror.”) If you’re looking for a happy ending, you’ll find it here. At least for this summer.

Thompson’s warmhearted, summery play is the next best thing to a visit to Maine (and a simpler time, cellphones or not). The mosquitos on the lake are entirely imaginary. And there’s no red tide whatsoever.

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