On Golden Pond
Probably most theatergoers know the basic story: Norman, a retired college professor, and his wife Ethel spend their summers at their cabin on Golden Pond, a lake in Maine. Norman is turning 80 and is getting forgetful but has not lost his wit and sharp tongue yet. Their only child Chelsea, now living in Southern California, has been pretty much estranged from her father but on decent terms with her mother. She comes to visit her parents for the first time in eight years. She has been divorced at least once, and now brings along her fiance Bill and his son Billy, whom Bill has custody of for the summer. They are all three on their way to Europe, but Ethel suggests they leave Billy behind to spend the summer in Maine. And the story goes on from there.
What is this play really about? Is it about Alzheimer's? Norman is definitely in the early stages of it, but doesn't get noticeably worse during the course of the play. Is it about mortality and the acceptance of the inevitable? Sure, since the two main characters are old, and one of them has heart trouble. Is it about family conflicts? Yes, between Chelsea and Norman, but we never really find out much about why Chelsea is so alienated from her father: Is it just because he constantly criticized her about being fat? Was he emotionally distant, incapable of showing affection? Probably, but why was he that way?
My opinion is that the main conflict in the story is between the mores of old New England and new California (the word "mores" is used in the script, and it's a good choice). It's the difference between a marriage in which people stay together until death, no matter how difficult the spouse is, and the quick divorce when "things didn't work out," the spur-of-the-moment wedding, the child who doesn't visit her parents for eight years, and the other child who is shuttled back and forth between parents, whose mother apparently doesn't want him anymore. The play pretty obviously comes down on the side of the old morality, and that may be one of the reasons it is so popular.
The thing that surprised me is that the play isn't as melodramatic as I thought it would be. I expected one of those lump-in-the-throat, tear-trickling-down-the-cheek endings, but it didn't affect me that way at all. (I'm sure that other audience members felt differently.) The play might be sentimental at times, but never maudlin. And it's really pretty funny. Norman, even though he's losing it, throws out a lot of clever one-liners, and he converses with people as if he were reeling in a fishgive a little slack, then sink the hook.
I have never seen the movie, so I didn't have to contend with memories of Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. Instead here we have Rick Wiles and Ninette Mordaunt, two of the treasures of the Albuquerque theater scene. They always do excellent work, and they are perfectly cast in these roles. Mr. Wiles seems to be the appropriate age, looks as frail as Norman is supposed to be, and plays the curmudgeon to a T. Ms. Mordaunt as Ethel is warm hearted, endlessly forgiving, and totally natural in her part. They are on stage almost all the time, and they never missed a beat.
Taunya Crilly, who plays Chelsea, can be a stunning actress in the right part, but even she is defeated by the banal writing of Chelsea's reconciliation scene with her father. This should be a riveting moment, but it's a clunker, and comes off as the weakest scene in the play. Jeff Hudson provides comic relief as the mailman who has had a crush on Chelsea for almost 30 years, but he misses the opportunity for wistfulness and heartbreak that the role could afford. Henry Chynoweth does a decent job as 13-year-old Billy, who revitalizes Norman (this happens during the intermission, another failing of the script). The shortest but best-written of the supporting roles is that of Bill, and Matt Heath knocks it out of the park; too bad he is not on stage longer.
The set by John van der Meer is a star, too. The interior of the cottage is realistic and well-appointed, but how do you depict Golden Pond? The problem here is solved very cleverly by having a looped projection visible through the picture window of the cabin, with pine branches waving in the wind and ripples on the water. (The famous loons, though, are heard but not seen.)
A lot of credit should go to Vernon Poitras, the director (and, in effect, the Enchanted Rose Theater personified), for assembling a very capable cast and crew, for putting on a good show, and for donating some of the proceeds to the Alzheimer's Association of New Mexico.
On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson is running through November 20, 2011, at the North Fourth Arts Center, 4904 Fourth St NW, Albuquerque, 87107. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $20 general, $18 students and seniors. For more information, please visit www.abqtheatre.org/index.php/members/theatre_page/172.