BWW Review: ON GOLDEN POND at PALM BEACH DRAMAWORKS
When playwright Ernest Thompson was growing up, he and his family summered at a lakefront cabin in Maine. That special place was the inspiration for On Golden Pond, his lots extraordinarily popular, bittersweet play about love and aging, recrimination and reconciliation.
This funny and moving play tells the story of Norman and Ethel Thayer, who are spending their forty-eighth summer at their tranquil home on Golden Pond in Maine. Norman is a cantankerous retired professor about to celebrate his 80th birthday, who is alarmed by his faltering memory. Ethel is a decade younger and attuned to his every need. She sees his flaws but loves him unconditionally. Their daughter, Chelsea, upends their idyllic summer when she arrives with her fiancé, his teenage son, and of emotional baggage, ultimately confronting her father about their fraught relationship.
On Golden Pond was first produced Off-Broadway by The Hudson Guild Theatre in 1978, with Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen as Norman and Ethel. They again played those roles when the show opened on Broadway on February 28, 1979, with Barbara Andres portraying Chelsea. The play was revived on Broadway in 2005, with James Earl Jones as Norman, Leslie Uggams as Ethel, and Linda Powell as Chelsea. There was also a 2001 television adaptation that was broadcast live, which was directed by the playwright and featured Christopher Plummer, Julie Andrews, and Glenne Headly. The best-known version of On Golden Pond is the 1981 film, adapted by Thompson and directed by Mark Rydell. It starred Katharine Hepburn as Ethel, and Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda playing what seemed to be a screen version of their own troubled father-daughter relationship. Thompson, Hepburn, and Henry Fonda won Academy Awards.
Naturally anyone doing a production of On Golden Pond must face the daunting task of following in the footsteps of the iconic performances delivered by Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. It would not be fair to compare anyone to those two actors however as it is each actors job to make a part their own. What Fonda and Hepburn did was bring personal truth and acting skill to their performances as Norman and Ethel, and that is all that is required of the actor playing the two leads in this production at Palm Beach Drama Works.
Pat Bowie and John Felix as Ethel and Norman Thayer have the worn and comfortable feeling of a couple that have loved and argued with each other for a long time. There are just a few moments at the very beginning of the play that feel a bit stilted, but from there on in it is smooth sailing. They have a wonderful familiarity with one another. Felix revels in Norman's quick wit, word play and dry delivery. Bowie loving pampers and prods him, with the understanding look of someone who has ridden the waves of a loved-one's changing moods. They both seem to move about their cabin retreat as though it is really a home and not a set. This is so important to the play feeling natural and the actions seeming organic.
Impeccable scenic design by Bill Clarke gives us a cabin living space with great flow, solid acting space, and the feeling of lived in intimacy. The open, two-story view with the trees surrounding their home is gorgeously designed and executed, and beautifully lit.
At first glance, a dashing, broad-shouldered Jim Ballard seems miss-cast as Chelsea's high-strung fiancé, Bill Ray. However, Ballard turns in a surprisingly layered take on the character. It is a strong performance that represents some of the best acting I have seen him do. Paul Tei is sheer delight as the mailman Charlie Martin. Tei is a master at creating complete, quirky characters on stage, and is a pleasure to watch on stage. A young Casey Butler plays Bill Ray's son, Billy Ray. Butler has a certain amount of charisma that work well for the role, and a great energy with Felix. Watching the two very different men become fast friends is charming.
Karen Stephens has just enough vulnerability as Chelsea to make us root for her. We want her to rid herself of the chip on her shoulder, find happiness and move on. The role of Chelsea can sometimes remain unlikeable in the hands of the wrong actress. We do like Stephens as Chelsea, despite the distance she establishes with her father from her first entrance. But without that established conflict there can be no resolution.
This thoroughly enjoyable production of On Golden Pond is filled with honesty and dry, humorous one-liners. This is the type of play that can be a mirror into our own lives and the lives of our loved ones (estranged and otherwise). And that is, after all, the intent of the author.
This heart-warming Palm Beach Dramaworks production of On Golden Pond will be appearing at The Don & Ann Brown Theatre through February 25, 2018. The Palm Beach Dramaworks is a non-profit, professional theatre and is a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the South Florida Theatre League, Florida Professional Theatres Association, and the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County.
The Don & Ann Brown Theatre is located in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach, at 201 Clematis Street. Performance schedules are as follows: Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30PM, Friday and Saturday at 8PM (except Saturday, October 28, which starts at 7PM), and select Sundays at 7PM. Matinee performances are on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2PM. Post-performance discussions follow Wednesday matinee and Sunday evening performances. Individual tickets are $75, with specially priced preview tickets at $55 and Opening Night tickets at $90. Student tickets are available for $15 and Pay Your Age tickets are available for those 18-40. Tickets for educators are half price with proper ID (other restrictions apply). Group rates for 20 or more and discounted season subscriptions are also available. For ticket information contact the box office at 561- 514-4042, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Ethel Thayer: Pat Bowie*
Norman Thayer, Jr.: John Felix*
Chelsea Thayer Wayne: Karen Stephens*
Bill Ray: Jim Ballard*
Billy Ray: Casey Butler*
Director: Paul Stancato
Scenic Design: Bill Clarke
Lighting Design: Donald Edmund Thomas
Sound Design: Brad Pawlak
Stage Manager: James Danford*
Picture of Pat Bowie and John Felix
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Review by John Lariviere