On Golden Pond
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 6, 2005
To begin with, there's James Earl Jones. I haven't seen him on stage since Othello more than twenty years ago (I missed Fences); if you're worried that perhaps he's lost some of his majesty in the theatre after all of those Verizon commercials, well, don't be. His is a performance of enormous depth and complexity, loaded with humor and intelligence and wit, a stunning portrait of a once powerful, still sharp, 80-year-old man facing down age and death with equal parts bravado and terror. When he sits, pretending to be immersed in a book but actually brooding and tormenting himself over all the things he can't do anymore and all the stuff he no longer seems able to remember, the whole mixed bag of feelings—sadness, anger, disgust, resignation—is entirely palpable. When he bullies or teases, the delight is infectious. When he rails or shouts, the resonance of that famous voice pierces the rafters. And when he smiles, which he does only very occasionally, it's unforgettable: a great enveloping glow illuminating every inch of the Cort Theatre.
None of which is intended to slight Leslie Uggams, Jones's formidable leading lady, who proves herself his equal and his match. She's so beautiful and spry that it's hard to accept that she's old, too; she gives us a portrait of self-assurance without vanity that can only come with age and wisdom. Together, they show us a marriage that's a partnership—by the time we've spent the few hours with them that On Golden Pond allows us, we can't imagine one without the other; we're nearly awed by their devotion. But they're no chirpy love birds: they're wonderfully real, difficult, individual people. Their love story is tender and unsentimental. And they're grand company.
This will not be a surprise if you're acquainted with the resumes of these two magnificent actors; the real revelation is how charming a comedy On Golden Pond turns out to be. The movie always felt mawkish to me; but the play is a hearty and mostly very upbeat slice of life, about this old married couple facing what they worry (but never admit) will be their final summer on the shores of the lake they love in the Maine woods. The Thayers—Norman and Ethel—live simply and routinely. He's a retired professor who was born cantankerous and crotchety, it would seem; he likes to fish and read and annoy his wife and be left alone. She, something of a grande dame out here in the semi-wilderness, in the cabin that was once her father's, lives to putter: to watch the loons and swat the bugs and look out for her husband.
For his eightieth birthday this summer, she's invited their estranged daughter Chelsea to pay a visit. They haven't seen one another in eight years. Chelsea turns up with a boyfriend—Bill, a dentist—and a 13-year-old boy, Bill's son, Billy. Father and daughter fall to scraping as is their pattern; in one of the play's most delicious scenes, Norman launches a relentless attack of irony and sarcasm on poor Bill. But when Chelsea and Bill head off to Europe for vacation, they leave Billy behind; Norman unpredictably bonds with the boy who is the son he never had and the grandson he didn't realize he was wishing for.
And that's really just about it, in terms of plot. Mostly, On Golden Pond is a study in character, and a rich and reliable one at that. Norman and Ethel are at the center, of course, but there are lovely moments when we get to know Chelsea, Billy, and even a bit about Bill; there's also Charlie the mailman, who fits into the Thayer household as comfily as an old slipper. Jones and Uggams are superb; Craig Bockhorn, as Charlie, is too—occupying this man with such naturalness that we're inclined almost from the start to take him for granted the way Ethel and Norman do. Alexander Mitchell, so outstanding in last year's revival of A Raisin in the Sun, is a delight as young Billy; Peter Francis James and Linda Powell round out the ensemble with fine portrayals of Bill and Chelsea.
This revival of On Golden Pond has been mounted with enormous care and thoughtfulness. Ray Klausen's set is particularly effective—every element of the room, from the furniture to the cups and coffeepot on the table, feels like it was handpicked by Ethel. Other design elements—Jane Greenwood's costumes, Brian Nason's lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier's sound and music—mesh beautifully without ever calling attention to themselves. Leonard Foglia's direction is similarly unobtrusive. He gets out of the way of his actors and the script and lets them work their magic organically and simply.
Ernest Thompson's script is much funnier than I expected. Yet there are moments of real import, such as the scene when Norman first understands that his memory is starting to fail, that tug on the heart; and there are other moments of pure uplift and joy, like one where Ethel, in a reminiscing reverie, sings some of the old camp songs she first learned five or decades before.
Plays this unadorned and resonant don't come along as often as they ought; and actors as thrillingly accomplished as James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams surely don't either. All of which adds up to the fact that On Golden Pond is one of the Broadway season's most solid entertainments. I am so glad I got to see it—feel privileged to have done so. Don't miss it.