Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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As comfort-plays go, you can’t do much better than “On Golden Pond,” by Earnest Thompson. Written originally in 1979, it has been updated by the author several times since, for film and later productions, to keep pace with the shifts which have made the timeless places less so over the years. Yet, at its core this play is less about place than character, and a good production of the play focuses on the creation of people you can believe care about each other.
Given this essential factor, “On Golden Pond” as presented at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts is, indeed, a good production. The performers range from good to very good, and the feel of their interrelatedness is right. This sense of ensemble makes it possible for director Jeff Lowe to shift from a very representational setting to what he calls a “more stripped away” feel – something comparatively unusual with this particular piece.
The story has been a film, and on stage locally many times. Norman Thayer, a crusty retired professor, and his wife Ethel, both at the tail end of life, return for another summer to their well-worn cabin at a lake they have loved since their individual childhoods. There they are joined by their somewhat estranged daughter Chelsea, and her new companion Bill, who end up leaving Bill’s 13-year-old son Billy behind as they move on to Europe. The time proves transformative to Norman, who finds Billy an antidote to the evidence of age’s toll, and to Chelsea, as she comes to terms with her relationship with what she sees as a demanding and consistently displeased father.
Again, this really only works if both Norman and Ethel are not only believable as individual actors, but believable as a richly fond couple whose mutual love and respect has kept an outwardly frustrating marriage very much alive. Joe Parrish and Rosemary London do just that, giving an almost constant, subtle underscore to the brusk familiarity of their lines which make you understand how that relationship could have held on so well for so long.
Lisa Apostle handles the nervous Chelsea well, and John Catanzaro gives considerable humor – and another underscore of relational wisdom – to her beau. Tyler Campbell has a lovely time as the somewhat simple, earnest mailman who was Chelsea’s long-ago summer boyfriend. Most importantly, Jackson Capitano becomes quite convincing most of the time as Billy, and the chemistry between him and Parrish creates a significant factor of charm in the production. Capitano does need to occasionally slow his lines a bit to be sure we get all the humor in them, however.
Set Designer Dillon Nelson has provided the requested skeletal set. It works better than one expects, allowing for some of the show’s running “gags” – the screen door’ issues, the tendency for Norman to lock the door when his wife is outside – to work better than one would expect simply by being offstage. Sound designer Steven Humenski has managed to mesh a few bits of the film score in at just the right times, and of course the calls of the lake’s loons.
“On Golden Pond,” when done as well as this, is a peaceful thing. It is not a stunning new statement of life. It is not cynical or challenging. Rather, it is an homage to aging and relationship, and as such says things that few plays have said better. This production is certainly worth seeing, but you’ll have to be fast to catch it. Though it only opened on June 19, it will close on the 28th.
What: “On Golden Pond” When: through June 28, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N Citrus Ave in Covina How Much: $15 – $25 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com
When signature performances appear on screen, even if they are recreating roles from the stage, those performances can become a huge barrier to creativity among stage productions which follow. Even reviewers can fall victim, including the former editor of mine who condemned a brilliant new production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” because the show’s lead didn’t deliver the lines as Elizabeth Taylor had.
It’s especially tough on community or semi-professional companies, where the easy fallback position for a director is sometimes to “do it like the movie.” This is why the recent production of “On Golden Pond” at Whittier Community Theater, which closed this past weekend, proved so refreshing. Each character was well-defined and well played, in a show with pacing which kept it interesting, often funny, and as touching as it should be. And nobody was “being” Henry or Jane Fonda, or Katharine Hepburn.
The tale of an aging, intellectually interesting couple at their summer cabin on the lake creates a particular opportunity for older actors to sink their teeth into characters outside the typical. Indeed, at Whittier, Eric Nelson created the essential Norman Thayer, crusty and morose with a soft underside he keeps well hidden. You can’t help but like him, just a bit – a necessity for the plot to move forward, but trickier to accomplish that one imagines.
Roxanne Barker, as Norman’s wife Ethel, created one of the finer performances of her recent career – precise, with an underlying warmth, but underplayed to match the mood of the play. Elizabeth Lauritsen’s version of their angsty, damaged adult daughter gave a well-examined view of a woman gradually righting her own ship, and Ronan Walsh pegged the preteen boy Norman warms to, making that relationship’s growth seem absolutely natural.
Andy Kresowski managed to avoid stereotype as the local guy once enamored of the Thayer daughter, making him far more genuine and less dim than sometimes portrayed. In a brief but important moment, Dave Edwards created a convincingly nervous yet resolute version of the man helping sort out the daughter’s life.
Kudos also to the set design of Mark Fredrickson, whose cabin proved so convincing you expected birds to fly by the windows. Yet, the feel of the entire production, from the ensemble spirit, through the unique renditions of characters made iconic on film, to the whole tone of subtle upbeat land at the feet of director Roxie Lee. Again, this is one of her finer moments, as it is for many in the small cast.
“On Golden Pond” can be sentimental bordering on goopy if done poorly. The Whittier production tread that fine line well. As one of the few remaining viable community theaters, now in its 92nd season no less, it bodes well for the future that this quality of performance can be expected there.
Next on the Whittier Community Theater list is the noir classic – also a famous film – “Laura,” due to open on Valentine’s Day. One hopes that they can keep going with this “new view of old classic” style, making that piece as much their own as they did “On Golden Pond.”