There’s no one who has ever beat time, to paraphrase Rocky Balboa in the movie Creed. Though the Rocky/Creed franchise seems like an odd choice to correlate with On Golden Pond, which opened Friday at Ivoryton Playhouse running through June 11, at their theater at 103 Main St. in Ivoryton, it’s not wrong and it is a hard truth for the Thayer family as they face the reality of time and age breaking down the elders of the family, Ethel, played by Mia Dillon, and Norman, played by James Naughton. The play is directed by Brian J. Feehan.
It’s the late 1970s – the play was published in 1979, so either then or about 1978 – and the two are spending the summer at their summer home in Maine on the titular Golden Pond, a practice they’ve been doing for decades.
Things are a little different this year as Norman’s mental faculties are diminishing. When Ethel tells Norman to go out and pick strawberries, he loses familiarity with his surroundings and runs home. Initially he shelters himself in the house with what he feels most secure with, books.
It isn’t until their daughter Chelsea, played by Stacie Morgain Lewis, arrives with her fiancee Bill Ray, played by Josh Powell, and Bill’s son Billy Ray, Jr., played by Sabatino Cruz, that Norman starts to find purpose in himself again as he and Billy find a kinship with each other. Through that kinship, Norman and Chelsea, who have been estranged, or at least been in a perpetual negative space with each other, find room to reopen communication with each other.
There is a certain sentimentality On Golden Pond holds that may or may not appeal to audiences based upon your taste. It has that yesteryear bygone era feel of a simpler life that has since moved on. It’s insular for sure, as we are seeing a family of WASPs dealing with their domestic struggles and old age.
There is one glaring politically incorrect issue with On Golden Pond that has aged rather horribly.
As much as there is a warmth and loving quality about Ethel and Norman, Norman in particular is probably a pre-Southern Strategy Democrat, and his commentary on Jews in particular, written with probably the intention of being funny in the late 1970s, comes off as just anti-Semetic and uncomfortable to listen to now. Does it make his character necessarily unlikable or even unforgivable? Depends on your tolerance for it. It’s only a few lines in one scene and makes him out to be more like that old grandfather or great-grandfather you have who casually uses terms like “those people” without realizing their casual racism in the process.
If you’re willing to forgive those couple lines as being the ravings of a mentally deteriorating old man of a now dead generation, On Golden Pond can be a rather tender and enjoyable play. Frankly, they could have cut those lines and the production wouldn’t have lost anything from it.
If you’re a fan of the film version with Katherine Hepburn and Henry and Jane Fonda, there are some significant differences. There are no scenes on the actual lake here. So Norman and Ethel flipping off the motorboatist and the whole sequence with Norman and Billy trying to catch the fabled fish Walter in Purgatory Cove doesn’t happen.
We do get some wonderful acting, though, and a marvelous set design by Marcus Abbott, depicting the interior of the Thayer summer home. The upstage dressing could have been a bit tidier but that is a nitpick. The rustic wooden framed home with the perpetually falling screen door, the levels to give depth, scale, and perspective to the audience is delightful.
Dillon and Naughton are both excellent as the aging Ethel and Norman. Dillon in particular captures the eternal patience necessary for a woman who loves her husband, even after nearly 50 years and dealing with his failing health.
But, for me, the standout performance is Stacie Morgain Lewis, who is absolutely marvelous as Chelsea, who has a remarkable natural quality in her performance, with an ease about her delivery that feels organic and real.
The rest of the supporting cast is all delightful as well. Sabatino Cruz has a right snarky foul mouthed cockiness to him as Billy Jr. Powell is appropriately awkward as Bill when he asks Norman permission for him and Chelsea to sleep together.
Will Clark is just on the right side of tolerable as the awkward mailman Charlie who has an obnoxious, but funny laugh and holds an eternal torch for Chelsea. Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of On Golden Pond is one of the best productions I’ve seen them produce. It’s beautifully designed, well directed, with an estimable cast. If only we didn’t have those few racist lines by Norman that didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth.