James Earl Jones in On Golden Pond
(Photo © Scott Schuman)
James Earl Jones in On Golden Pond
(Photo © Scott Schuman)
Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond is a very simple play, which is not to say that it's easy to perform well. The story of an aging couple making what may be their final visit to the summer cottage that they've cherished for over four decades, the play has bittersweet depths that can be reached not through its dialogue but through something much more ephemeral: the chemistry between the two leading players. The long, shared history of the characters they play must permeate the walls of the rustic retreat and fill in the cracks in Thompson's hop-scotching script. That chemistry was in short supply on opening night of the Kennedy Center's presentation of the Jeffrey Finn revival starring James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams.

But let's be fair here. Uggams took on the role of Ethel, loving wife to Jones's Norman Thayer, less than a week before the first preview performance when Diahann Carroll left the production (reportedly, due to a back injury). So Uggams and Jones did not have much time to make the couple's back-story come alive. Despite a bit of tentativeness with a few lines early in the first act, trouper Uggams managed to turn in a polished performance. It's quite possible that these two accomplished performers will be able to create that indefinable magic as the short run continues; any future for this production probably depends on that as much as it does on the marquee value of the stars' names.

The challenge for any actors who take on this play is that Thompson crams a lot of material into it. There's the physical and mental deterioration of the 80-year-old former professor Norman and how he deals with it, the reaction of Ethel and her coping with an uncertain future, the semi-estrangement between Norman and his 42-year-old daughter Chelsea, the battle of wills between Norman and Chelsea's latest love interest, and the sense of renewal that occurs in the cottage when a 13-year-old boy is left in the Thayers' care for the summer. As Thompson has written the play, each issue is introduced and briefly considered, and then everyone moves on.

Directed here by Leonard Foglia (Master Class), the cast briskly moves through each scene as if checking off a list. They rarely slow down to savor the play's quiet moments of deep love, estrangement, bewilderment, and fear. Two-time Tony Award winner, Academy Award nominee and Kennedy Center Honoree James Earl Jones comes to the stage of the Eisenhower Theater with a deep reservoir of goodwill that helps fill in some of the psychological space that he left blank opening night. We already like Jones before he utters his first words. But Norman Thayer is a sarcastic, irascible curmudgeon who enjoys needling everyone within sight; he's not always likeable. Jones relies primarily on his famous, stentorian basso profundo delivery to create the character, which works well in the lighter scenes but not when something more nuanced is required. This is especially evident when Norman finds that he doesn't recognize the once-familiar territory around the cottage and retreats in shame and horror to the comforting arms of Ethel. The usually moving scene is rushed and oddly flat here; Jones's depiction of Norman's dread of the loss of his faculties seems hollow.

Linda Powell and Leslie Uggams in On Golden Pond(Photo © Scott Schuman)
Linda Powell and Leslie Uggams in On Golden Pond
(Photo © Scott Schuman)
Similarly, the scene wherein Norman and daughter Chelsea come to grips with their prickly relationship has the potential to crackle but does not in this production. A sense of brittle engagement is conspicuous when Chelsea, played well by hometown favorite Linda Powell (daughter of Secretary of State Colin Powell), first arrives at the cottage and warmly greets her mother while stiffly regarding her dad. But their famous reconciliation scene doesn't pack much of an emotional wallop. More effective are the moments between Jones and Peter Francis James as dentist Bill Ray, Chelsea's boyfriend, and Jones and Alexander Mitchell as Ray's son, Billy. James simultaneously expresses innate strength of character and an unease born out of concern that he and the difficult old man will not get off on the right foot. Young Mitchell hits all the right notes as the irrepressible Billy and seems to energize Jones in their scenes together. Craig Bockhorn is suitably comic as mailman Charlie Martin, capably creating a bucolic character without resorting to stereotype. His Maine accent is subtle but effective, and a sense of intelligence comes through as Charlie engages in genial repartee with the Thayers.

Scenic designer Ray Klausen has turned the Eisenhower stage into a well-detailed cottage interior, eschewing walls in favor of a massive backdrop showing the lake and hills beyond. Brian Nason's lighting is dramatic, changing the backdrop as weather conditions and time of day dictate and adding to a sense of heightened realism. It's all quite pleasing to see. There are plenty of laughs in this production, the timing and pacing of which suggest a television sitcom more than a bittersweet drama, but the tears are not there -- at least, not yet.