Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

On Golden Pond
Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Barbara McBain and Joe Musil
Photo by Stephanie Cartwright
Ernest Thompson's play On Golden Pond received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play in 1979 and Thompson also won an Oscar for his 1981 film adaptation, which starred Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda. While it's fairly predictable, it's also a rich and amusing comedy full of dramatic moments and identifiable characters and situations. Don Bluth Front Row Theatre's production features sharp direction and a wonderful cast who infuse this warm and moving dramedy with humor and charm.

The play begins when Ethel and Norman Thayer arrive at their Maine summer lake home. Norman is about to turn 80 and this year marks their 48th summer at the home that overlooks Golden Pond. Ethel and Norman have formed a rich and comfortable life together even if their occasional bickering sometimes gets in the way of the deep love they have for each other. However, Norman is restless and his memory is beginning to fade and the mosquitos seem to be even worse this year than in past summers. The surprise arrival of their 42-year-old daughter Chelsea, who has a somewhat distant relationship with her overbearing father, along with her new boyfriend Bill and his 13-year-old son Billy, sets the slight plot in motion as new friendships are formed and old wounds are healed.

With an abundance of sharp and witty wisecracks and a finely detained depiction of the impact that memory loss has, Thompson has written a great character in Norman. While there may not be anything new in how the topics of aging and memory loss are presented, and the roles of Ethel and the other parts aren't quite as fleshed out, there are great moments that each character has with well-written monologues and confrontations. Anyone who grew up with a judgmental parent, or knows someone who is aging and suffering memory loss, will identify with Thompson's play and the characters he has created.

However, while the play is well written and isn't dated in its depiction of broken parent and child relationships and the impacts of aging, it does include a few, slight instances that border on racism, antisemitism, and homophobia in how Norman speaks of minorities and an elderly lesbian couple who live on the lake. I understand that Thompson uses these comments from Norman to depict the elder generation and the WASP views Norman has, but they never really go anywhere or result in any type of denouement of Norman, so for a modern audience who is more in tune with the negative impacts these types of comments can have, they stick out from the rest of the play. Several of these lines were eliminated for Thompson's film adaptation, and it's interesting that he never went back to revise his play to remove them. Fortunately, those lines only amount to a few instances in the play.

Under Diedra Celeste Miranda's warm, thoughtful, and clear direction, the cast all excel, especially Joe Musil as Norman and Barbara McBain as Ethel. With a sharp, deadpan delivery, perfect comic timing that gets big laughs from each of Norman's witty lines, and a warmth in the character that changes as he encounters the teenage Billy and comes to have an understanding with Chelsea, Musil is practically perfect as the irritable, curmudgeonly, and set in his ways Norman. As Ethel, McBain may not have as showy of a role, but the connection she has with Musil creates a realistic depiction of the strong bond this couple has after being together for almost 50 years. Whether it be their playful bickering or a perfectly played dramatic moment toward the end of the play, both Musil and McBain are excellent in their line delivery, facial expressions, and reactions, creating three-dimensional characters full of depth, strength and nuance.

Andrea Hough is wonderful as Chelsea. From her clear and heartbreaking reaction when confronted by a negative statement that Norman makes, to the glow and joy in her line delivery and facial expressions when she sees a positive future for herself, Hough beautifully shows the range of emotion, from pain to happiness, that Chelsea feels. Matthew R. Harris brings some depth and dimension to the supporting character of Bill Ray; Harris' delivery of the confrontation that Bill has with Norman is well acted and strongly delivered. As Billy Ray, Christopher Devous is endearing, funny, and very amusing, and Malcolm Hooper is fun as the likable, simpleton local mailman Charlie Martin.

Cheryl Schaar's scenic and prop designs create a lived-in, comfortable lake home setting, and Teresa Knudson's costumes are character perfect. Miranda's staging in the in-the-round space is quite impressive. She has her characters naturally moving around the space so you aren't stuck with seeing the back of a character for more than a few seconds–only a few moments where two characters are talking while seated on a couch could be staged slightly better so the section of the audience behind the couch can see more of the expressions on their faces. She also effectively uses the elevated second row of seating for her characters to stand on to separate them from the main stage area for the scenes set outside where the characters are looking at the lake. With wonderful lighting by Robert Murdock and Bret Reese and a natural sound design by Miranda and Roger McKay, a scene set on a lake in the early morning is quite impressive.

On Golden Pond may be a relatively simple story with a fairly predictable outcome, but it has situations and characters that many will recognize and identify with. It also has an important reminder and life lesson about the need to grow up, take responsibility for your life, and not blame others for the shortcomings and emotional wounds of your past as well as the importance to make amends for any mistakes you've made before it's too late. With a wonderful cast and smart direction, Don Bluth Front Row Theatre's production is endearing, funny, and infused with warmth and charm.

On Golden Pond runs through September 2, 2023, at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, 8989 E. Vía Linda #118, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 480-314-0841.

Directed by Diedra Celeste Miranda
Scenic and Properties Designer: Cheryl Schaar
Lighting Designers: Robert Murdock and Bret Reese
Sound Designers: Diedra Celeste Miranda and Roger McKay
Costume Designer: Teresa Knudson
Stage Manager: Malcolm Hooper

Cast: (in order of appearance)
Norman Thayer, Jr: Joe Musil
Ethel Thayer: Barbara McBain
Charlie Martin: Malcolm Hooper
Chelsea Thayer: Andrea Hough
Billy Ray: Christopher Devous
Bill Ray: Matthew R. Harris