By all accounts, this is a love story. Norman and Ethel Thayer return to their summer cottage on New England’s Golden Pond for the 48th year. With his 80th birthday approaching, Norman must contend with memory loss and heart palpitations. This wreaks havoc on his self esteem, as Norman’s verbal tenacity has always been his strong suit. A former English professor, he can be somewhat grand in “sizing up” others and their shortcomings.
Ethel is the sprite, a lively chatty spirit who keeps Norman going. She sees the wonder of their lives and the beautiful surroundings at their lakeside summer home. Upon their arrival, she excitedly shows Norman how the loons are “welcoming them home.”
Norman’s grumpy and grouchy side is showcased when Charlie the mailman stops by for a visit. Charlie is the sweet, innocent character who laughs to fill the spaces of awkward conversation. He carries a torch for Chelsea, the Thayers’ 44-year-old daughter, now divorced and living in Los Angeles.
Chelsea sends word that she and her fiancé, Bill Ray, are coming to visit for Norman’s 80th birthday. They arrive with Bill’s 13-year-old son, Billy, who sports an attitude of teenage boredom. Norman enjoys playing mind games with Bill, but Bill is not willing to humor Norman at his own expense. The divide between Norman and Chelsea is thick with disappointment, resentment and unresolved feelings. At his wife’s urging, Norman reluctantly agrees to keep young Billy for a month while Chelsea and Bill travel alone to Europe. Thus ends the first act.
Playwright Ernest Thompson’s carefully crafted, Tony award-winning script depicts the most base of human emotions by interweaving love, humor, fear and disappointment into this show. Each of the five scenes explores a journey for Norman and Ethel who are in the twilight years of their marriage.
Director Barbara Berge knows how to balance the humor and emotionally charged script. “Initially I thought this was a sweet play, but it is so much more than a sweet play” she said. “It is about an old man who is raging against the dying of the light. He feels that his life is slipping away. Yes, it is about Ethel and Norman’s love affair, but we also explore all the themes of disappointment, regret, the fear of getting older, and Norman’s conflicted relationship with his daughter.”
In the script notes, playwright Thompson says he encourages the performers to not yield to the storyline’s tenderness, but to keep the tensions high, as in reality.
“The journey is toward forgiveness, acceptance and renewal for all characters,” Berge said.
Berge delivers this emotional mix with her casting. Portraying Norman Thayer, Jr, is newcomer John Farrell, who has performed and directed multiple stages in the Portland area. Farrell perfectly captures Norman Thayer, with every quick witticism, precise movement, and the painful realization he is not physically or mentally the man he once was.
Stage veteran Akia Woods is the energetic Ethel, a decade younger than Norman, yet wholly his partner in life. It is a joy to watch her as she affectionately encourages Norman with her lighthearted chatter, yet deftly intercedes when his grumpy demeanor gets the best of him. Woods and Farrell are tender and loving as Norman and Ethel.
Stacy Fischer and Dean Seanor are Chelsea and Bill Ray, giving their performances a great chemistry. Fischer exhibits a perfect chip on her shoulder toward her father, and it is clear that her feelings affect him. While she is close to her mother, Ethel does confront Chelsea about her role in their resentful relationship. It is powerful stuff. Seanor is equally convincing as Bill Ray, the dentist whom Chelsea loves. Seanor pulls off being the straight guy, equally wary but not conforming to Norman’s antics.
Alexander Herd is young Billy. He is clearly a rising star. He holds his own with Norman, yet is open to some common ground. Herd uses great physical dynamics to portray a bored teenager.
And Scott Branchfield is a delight to watch as the guileless mailman, Charlie. A seasoned actor who can play Shakespeare or dance in a musical, he nails the sweet, innocent Charlie.
This production is stage managed by CJ McCarty. The lake house living room set was designed by Shawn Brateng, and Geoff Levear led the set construction. Lighting is by Ron Miller, sound by Tony Simon, props by Bonnie Ross. Linda and Brian Haggerty, Bonnie Ross are the stage crew.
“On Golden Pond” is a slice of life. It is about family. Somewhat dysfunctional, but definitely family.
“On Golden Pond” opens this Friday, July 19, and runs through August 4, with performances at 7 pm every Friday and Saturday as well as one Thursday performance on August 1. There will be 2 pm matinées on Sunday, July 28 and Aug. 4. Tickets, $22 for adults or $16 for students and seniors, are available by calling 541-265-ARTS or online at www.coastarts.org.