On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Scenic design by Ray Klausen. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Brian Nason. Original music and sound design bu Dan Moses Schreier. Cast: James Earl Jones, Leslie Uggams, with Linda Powell, Peter Francis James, Craig Bockhorn, Alexander Mitchell.
Is it possible for anything - a lake, or perhaps a play - to be too placid? With regards to this question, the Broadway waters are about to be tested with the heartfelt but lethargic revival of On Golden Pond that just opened at the Cort.
Like Steel Magnolias, which also just opened on Broadway in a faithful but lifeless revival, this play by Ernest Thompson is unlikely ever to completely escape the shadow of its movie version. In the case of On Golden Pond, which originally opened on Broadway in 1979 (starring Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen), its 1981 film starred two beloved screen icons, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, giving highly memorable performances as an elderly husband and wife spending what might well be their last summer together on Golden Pond in Maine. (Fonda won an Oscar; it was his last appearance in a feature film.)
Anyone stepping into the roles of Norman and Ethel Thayer in a major production today must be prepared to be stand up to those lofty comparisons. Leonard Foglia, this production's director, understood this, and was undeniably successful at casting two actors about as far removed from those esteemed Hollywood icons as imaginable: James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams.
They're both up to the challenge, and don't have to expend much energy to wipe away memories of Fonda and Hepburn. Jones's sonorous tones and Uggams's radiant, maternal warmth (even though her ever-appealing youthfulness is partially masked - not effectively, it must be said - with age makeup and grey hair) instantly render these as very different Thayers than could be the case a quarter of a century ago. According to the Playbill, the show is still set in the present, though only a few lines have been changed to reflect this.
Not much else has been altered, but little needed to be: Jones and Uggams provide radically different interpretations just by showing up. You get the impression that they're playing Thayers who have lived through a very different set of experiences, who have seen the world changed for them in ways that Fonda, Hepburn, Aldredge, and Sternhagen couldn't have as astutely communicated. With Jones as Norman, the play also acts as a more pointed reminder that aging (Norman is about to turn 80) takes its toll on everyone; Norman's stocky, secure frame doesn't make him immune. Though Norman has long been obsessed with death, he faces it here with a quiet resignation that suggests he's already accepted the inevitable.
The more calculatedly sentimental moments of Thompson's script - and there are more than a few - don't emerge unscathed from this new take on the show. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though as a result you should expect to feel less intense chills up your spine, find yourself laughing less, and notice that fewer tears are running down your cheeks.
What's more damaging is that, in reconceiving the Thayers, Foglia, Jones, and Uggams have provided everything except the unshakable devotion that has kept Norman and Ethel together for nearly 50 years. We experience the outer shell of coolness that hides their unquenchable heat, but the heat itself isn't provided. Even though you get a very real sense of their shared experiences, their shared affection is seldom in evidence - as the play strongly suggests that Ethel is the sole person capable of taming Norman's beastly nature, this cracks the fragile foundation of a play already built on treacle-saturated ground.
This is because so much of the play revolves around Norman's rediscovering (or, more likely, discovering for the first time) his latent humanity. This is especially vital in his interactions with his daughter, Chelsea (Linda Powell): Norman wanted her to be a boy, and she's never been able to pierce his gruff exterior the way her mother could. So, when Chelsea arrives for a visit - her first in many years - with her new boyfriend Bill (Peter Francis James) and his son Billy (Alexander Mitchell), the ground is set for a confrontation between father and daughter. Time, they both realize, is running out.
That confrontation and the subsequent events it brings about play out with few surprises. But because Jones's Norman seems fully human from the outset, the actor has nowhere to go. This makes most of the second act's developments, intended to be revelatory for Norman, lack any identifiable dramatic punch. The final outcome of the play, focusing on the still-evolving relationship between Norman and Ethel, remains affecting; Thompson demands it. But the lack of definition to Norman's dramatic arc keeps it from being as powerful as it could be, or must be - how else can a pedestrian tear-jerker reach its fullest potential?
Powell and James do fine, if unexceptional, work, but their opportunities are limited; their characters act less and react more. It often seems as though Uggams is similarly handicapped - she's never able to assert herself in her role, and though she looks and sounds terrific, it's not enough to anchor either the play or the character of Norman. Mitchell reaffirms his status (gained with last season's A Raisin in the Sun) as one of New York theatre's best child actors, and Craig Bockhorn makes a few amusing appearances as a jovial mailman whose love for Chelsea remains unrequited.
But the most successful work is done by scenic designer Ray Klausen, who only suggests the Thayers's cramped waterfront cottage and uses as the primary feature of his set a painting (watercolor, naturally) of Golden Pond. As lit (by Brian Nason), it reflects the gradual passing of time - and life - in the play, and provides a pristine, pictorial beauty that no one else involved in the production evokes. That the tranquility and stillness depicted in that painting extend to the cottage beyond the pond's shores - and, ultimately, the production containing it - is the most significant problem with this On Golden Pond.