Reviewed by Carolyn Gillespie
Flint Community Players has mounted Ernest Thompson’s poignant gem On Golden Pond in its intimate Ballenger space. The play opened on Broadway in 1979 with Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen playing the long-married Thayers who face their golden years with equal measures of fear, love, and bitterness. A popular film version followed featuring Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, with Jane Fonda playing the Thayer’s daughter Chelsea whose troubled relationship with her failing father lies at the heart of the family drama. Other versions of Thompson’s work followed, including a TV version with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and the late Glenne Headly, as well as a Broadway revival with James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams.
Though the play is set in Maine, Steve Munsell’s cozy set will transport Michiganders directly to the family cottage “up north” with its handsome fireplace and kitschy furnishings; and the intermittent sound track is high on nostalgia, complete with the eerie call of the loon. As the play begins, we meet the Thayers who are opening the house for the season – their 49th as summer residents of their small community. Ron Fournier plays Norman, a sharp-tongued retired professor of English, who is showing early signs of dementia, much to the dismay of his wife Ethel, played by Mary Rice. Ethel works to keep her worries about Norman at bay, but his erratic behavior, cutting remarks, and black humor cast a pall over the fond memories of other summers. The local mail carrier, Charlie who brings news of local townies along with the post, is played with heart and an idiosyncratic laugh by J.R. Nunley. Charlie has been slogging the same route since he was a fifteen year old in love with Chelsea. Unmarried, he still harbors a longing for her, and her unexpected arrival to visit her parents fills him with hope of another chance in spite of the fact that she arrives with a fiancé and his 13 year old son.
Chelsea’s arrival presents a challenge/opportunity for the Thayers as she asks her parents to care for young Billy Ray, Jr. for a month while she and Bill Ray travel to Europe. Carla Feamster brings considerable energy to the role. Christopher Dinnan as Bill Ray demonstrates initial deference to Norman, but eventually abandons his pretext of affability in the face of Norman’s caustic responses to his efforts at civility. We begin to see what lies at the root of Chelsea’s rupture with her father – she addresses him as “Norman” and will not honor him by calling him “Dad”. Ethel is delighted to host the boy, but is concerned about Norman’s ability to cope. She needn’t. The boy brings Norman great joy and seems to alleviate the signs of his growing senility. They fish daily, they laugh. Ever the English professor, he encourages the boy to read youth classics. In turn, the boy teaches Norman the current slang and how to laugh without bitterness. After the month is over, Chelsea returns, and that is the rest of the story.
Opening night posed a few problems for the company. Director William Kircher might clarify the signal event in each scene, and the cast has room to grow into the dense emotional terrain the play lays out. Stricter attention could be paid to realizing small elements – the reality of a glass of milk, the work of opening and closing a house, clothing choices that suggest summer, the weight of a picnic. Nonetheless, there is plenty to think about in this family drama, especially for those of us in the Ethel/Norman age bracket.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
On Golden Pond continues at FCP’s Tom & Bea Nobles Performance Hall, 2462 S Ballenger Hwy Flint, 48507 on Nov. 3, 4. 10 & 11 at 7:30 pm and Nov. 5 & 12 at 2:30 pm. For tickets and more information contact the box office at 810-441-9302 or www.flintcommunityplayers.com