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On Golden Pond

This revival is unlikely to erase memories of the 1981 film, yet it is a respectable and in many ways admirable effort. logo
James Earl Jones in On Golden Pond
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
While the current Broadway revival of On Golden Pond is unlikely to erase memories of the 1981 film, with its sublime performances by Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, it is still a respectable and in many ways admirable effort. Ernest Thompson's play is a poignant yet comic exploration of aging and family dynamics. Perhaps in an effort to underscore its universal appeal, this production -- directed by Leonard Foglia -- features a predominantly African-American cast.

The legendary actor James Earl Jones stars as the curmudgeonly Norman Thayer. Norman and his wife Ethel (Leslie Uggams) are spending their 48th summer together at their cabin on Golden Pond in Maine. Norman turns 80 this year, and both his mind and body are showing signs of deterioration. He talks morbidly about his impending death and his hope for a last hurrah but finds it difficult to do more than read the paper and speculate about jobs that he knows he'll never actually apply for. The arrival of his estranged daughter Chelsea (Linda Powell), her new boyfriend Bill Ray (Peter Francis James), and Bill's 13-year-old son Billy (Alexander Mitchell) prompts Norman to "get it in gear" and holds out the possibility of reconciliation within the family.

Jones possesses a commanding stage presence. His deep, resonant voice helps to give Norman the imposing quality that makes others intimidated by him while his wry, deadpan delivery is comically endearing. Unfortunately, the actor is not always believable in Norman's more vulnerable moments. An early scene in which Norman admits to Ethel that he lost his way as he attempted to find a road that should have been familiar to him rings false. It's a major misstep, as that speech is supposed to set the tone for Norman's journey within the play, but Jones regains his footing and delivers a superb performance for the remainder of the production. He's especially good in a subtle yet emotionally charged exchange with Powell's Chelsea in the second act.

Uggams, too, has troubles in making Ethel consistently believable. Several of her mannerisms seem overly rehearsed rather than natural or spontaneous; her regal bearing and clipped vocal delivery offer constant reminders that she is performing the role rather than inhabiting it. Interestingly, she fares better in Ethel's more emotional moments, such as an angry outburst at Chelsea for her constant criticism of Norman, and she communicates what appears to be real fear when she sees Norman collapse.

Powell's entrance as Chelsea has the immediate effect of raising the tension level in the room, and her body posture and tone of voice effectively convey her character's attitude towards both of her parents. James's Bill Ray is confident yet respectful; the scene between him and Norman is a very funny battle of wills in which both parties come out winners. Mitchell is terrific as Billy, and it's a pleasure to watch his interactions with Jones's Norman. Rounding out the cast is the only Caucasian actor in the company, Craig Bockhorn, as Charlie the mailman; he is grounded and natural in his interactions with the Thayers.

The only lines in the script that appear to have been changed involve the updating of years and the prices charged for dental work (Bill Ray is a dentist). The production keeps Norman's remark that "there are no native Negroes" in Maine. Delivered by an African-American actor, the line has a much different resonance and makes you wonder if Norman's comments about race and ethnicity -- which also include pointed remarks about Jews and Italians -- should be taken at face value or if it's another example of the way he likes to play with people's heads for his own amusement.

Alexander Mitchell, Leslie Uggams, and James Earl Jones
in On Golden Pond
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
Ray Klausen's set nicely suggests the Thayers' rustic cabin without actually filling in all of the details. A large watercolor of a lake and mountains is painted onto a scrim at the back of the stage and is beautifully transformed by lighting designer Brian Nason's use of various colors to suggest sunsets, sunrises, etc. Projections of moving clouds during scene changes add to the effect and dramatically demonstrate the passage of time.
Foglia seems to have emphasized the comedy within the play, and there are several sections that are very funny indeed. It helps that all of the actors have superb comic timing, as well as a nice rapport with each other. The more serious themes of impending death and the difficulty of communication between different generations are still present but not as fully developed as they might have been. The revival is certainly enjoyable, but if you want to experience the full dramatic impact of On Golden Pond, you still can't do better than the film.

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