Sunday, March 13, 2016

WOBT: "On Golden Pond"

Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond, best known for its multi-award winning 1981 film starring Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman, is currently playing at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre.

Featuring a strong acting ensemble, the play takes us to a lake cottage in a remote corner of rural Maine, where Norman and Ethel Thayer [Roger Humber and Teri Sweeney] have spent the last forty-eight Summers. As is clear from the start, Norman and Ethel are devoted to one another, have grown to tolerate the eccentricities that developed over time, and recognize with varying degrees of acceptance that life for them is growing short, and the ease with which Mr. Humber and Ms. Sweeney inhabit their roles is a gently reassuring reminder that long-term marriages are not a thing of the past.

But all is not sweetness and light on Golden Pond. At eighty years of age, Norman's dementia and heart palpitations are a matter of concern [as is punctuated early on in his distracted conversations with Janie Allred's officious telephone Operator], and when semi-estranged daughter Chelsea [Lauren Morgan] arrives with her current beau Bill Ray [Douglas Mitchell] and his son Billy [Will Chieves] in tow, many of the family's skeletons come out of the closet. Additionally, local mailman Charlie [Joey B. Fine], a childhood sweetheart of Chelsea's who has never lost his feelings for her, is an occasional distraction and source of much of the play's humor.

There is a lot to accomplish in the production's almost two-and-a-half-hour running time to set things aright. -- Jason Morgan is growing more assured as a director: he crafts a clear story with his actors, but allows lengthy scene changes with a lot of dead time to slow the pace and let audiences disconnect. Plus, he rushes through a few key moments -- Chelsea's reconciliation with her deliberately cantankerous father is over in a flash, and curmudgeonly Norman's developing connection with the willful Billy [Mr. Chieves's attitude and posturing speaks a lot] over fishing and literature is often so quiet and restrained that it is hardly noticed.

The focus is most certainly on Norman and Ethel. Mr. Humber delves into Norman's purposefully difficult personality, a man slowly coming to terms with his growing dementia and heart condition while holding on to his position as head of household. His interrogation of Bill as an acceptable suitor for his daughter is one of his better scenes, and Mr. Mitchell [a most welcome newcomer to the local community theatre stage] gives a credible and truthful depiction of a man in love who must make nice with his prospective in-laws, and who relies on honesty to get him by. He is a good match for Norman's testiness.

Ms. Sweeney, one of the River Region's most accomplished actors, gives simply the most natural and believable characterizations in this production. She is a model of physical comfort and vocal honesty for her fellow actors, and her generosity in sharing the stage and supporting them makes everyone better. Her Ethel looks after Norman with an eagle eye and an understanding of his health and well-being, while her affectionate appelation of him as an "old poop" serves to lessen his fears. As a go-between for Chelsea and Bill and Billy, she unobtrusively is the strength of all the relationships. And her final scene with Mr. Humber as Ethel and Norman say good-bye to Golden Pond's loons is comforting to both them and us that simple things have value. (For tis final weekend, the role of Ethel will be played by Angie Mitchell; she's got big shoes to fill.)

Though not without its flaws, the WOBT production of On Golden Pond is a gentle confirmation of family and long-term relationships.