Regional Reviews: St. Louis
On Golden Pond
I still remember the surprise of picking up the script for The Lion in Winter after viewing the dark, weepy film, only to see it says "A Comedy" right there on the front cover of the play. Likewise, Steel Magnolias seems to have two separate identities on stage and screen, one mostly eccentric and the other exceedingly reverential. And that's just two examples.
In Insight Theatre Company's production, Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond, from 1979, seems a lot more intelligent and considerably less overwrought on stage, compared to the 1981 film version, in which a light-hearted family dramedy seemed re-cast into a struggle for the nation's soul after the torment of Vietnam. All-American leading man Henry Fonda and exasperated daughter Jane Fonda lurched toward a chilly and weepy geo-political middle ground in that one. As a result, On Golden Pond the play is a lot more fun up on the lively stage.
Interestingly, there is a lion in winter and at least one steel magnolia in Thompson's play, and of course they're married to each other, and both are from Pennsylvania. Trish Brown gives impeccable direction, and the dean of local actors, Joneal Joplin, towers over the show as Norman Thayer, a lordly, retired English professor going wryly into his ninth decade. The equally revered Susie Wall, who traces her lineage back to the Theatre Project Company, plays his long-suffering wife, now fully engaged in the day-to-day business of keeping the Great Man going.
You probably remember enough about the story to know that Norman seems to be losing his marbles. So from the get-go there is a constant suspense as we monitor each of Norman's behaviors: gauging his forgetfulness, his fussiness, and his momentary confusions, wondering just how far gone he is already, in the opening scene, and what may come next. We hope to have 20 more years of great work from Mr. Joplin, though On Golden Pond probably always looks like the last stop on the "Hamlet train" in any actor's lifeone last great shot at puzzling onstage madness. And he is great in it; Mr. Joplin glides into this latest performance like a powerful hawk zooming down on an unsuspecting field mouse.
Which is exactly how Norman Thayer descends on every other character in the play. It's eerie to watch him dismantle his own daughter (the perfect Jenni Ryan as Chelsea) in their first scene together, and hilarious as Norman invisibly jerks his future son-in-law Bill Ray around like a marionette. The always remarkable Eric Dean White displays unexpected comical flair as Bill Ray, who's reduced to a neurotic mess by that first encounter.
In any case, it is the now-familiar story of a caretaker and her (probably) failing husband, who is also an expert on withholding his love from his own family. But it's nowhere near as gloomy as the film. It is, in fact, a lot of fun.
There are a couple of minor areas where the play reveals its age. The excellent Michael Pierce plays Billy Ray Jr., a 15-year-old kid from California who ultimately helps to draw Norman out of his dark Miss Daisy dotage. The play's program warns us that it is "a few years ago," but Billy Ray Jr.'s costume seems a little too comical, perhaps, for 2015 or '16. Likewise, decades before the ongoing congressional vendetta against the postal service, Kurt Knoedelseder is endlessly delightful, keeping the tone bubbly as a visiting mailman from scene to scene. Ah, the bygone days of the cheerful postman.
And then there's that (wonderful) larger problem of this 1979 play being revived in the age of modern medical miracles, after the steady pace of change in the field of dementia research and in-home care over the last 38 years. Here, one humble little bottle of pills arrives in the mail to stand in for all of that. Thirty-eight years later we might say the Thayers seem like they are neglecting Norman's health, if he hasn't already got cholesterol pills and prostate pills and blood pressure pills, and a $300 little bottle of toenail medicine, too, let alone having met with a social worker and a team of gerontologists by now.
But mortality need not "only" come in a little brown plastic bottle, and Mr. Joplin creates a quintessentially irascible old man without all the props, using only a nicely orchestrated sense of mental disorder. Mr. Knoedelseder's Charlie does remark on how much older Norman looks during the Thayers' latest annual getawayone of the many subtle clues to dementia. But it's barely even a play about that, being so nicely balanced out with unresolved family problems and a stage full of strong characters.
There's a great set, but with another mildly annoyingly bright, big-screen TV on stage, out of the window, representing the "pond." Honestly, I still prefer painted scenery, which rarely upstages a live actor. Maybe this big video screen just needs to be reprogrammed into "movie mode," making a literally sparkling view of "Golden Pond" into something more cinematic, more of a dark and mythic presence. Then, like the theme of mortality itself, that pond would be more specifically in the background.
Through July 23, 2017 at the .ZACK Theatre, 3224 Locust Street (just east of Compton). For more information visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com.
Cast of Characters