The artistic leaders at Ivoryton Playhouse made a wonderful choice in pairing Mia Dillon and James Naughton in their current production of Earnest Thompson’s On Golden Pond, running through June 11. Dillon, a Tony nominee and fabulously versatile actor on stage, film, and in television, elevates anything she appears in. Naughton—a two-time Tony winner—is blessed with a glorious voice; tall, dark, and handsome looks; and unmistakable, if low-key, charisma.
Unfortunately, though Dillon and Naughton have appealing chemistry as the aging and amusingly dissimilar Ethel and Norman Thayer, the choice of play itself squanders the monumental talent of these two. The forty-four-year-old script has neither a compelling, surprising script, nor well-developed characters. Moreover, Norman makes enough racist and anti- “queer” (his word) jokes that in his “Director’s Notes,” director Brian J. Feehan feels that he must gently excuse these “words” and “phrases.” His words only highlight the question of why Thompson’s play was chosen to showcase these stars.
The plot focuses on Norman and Ethel Thayer, a well-off New England couple, who have come, as they always do in the summer, to their second home in Maine. But this time Norman will turn eighty, so the theme of aging and death forms one strand of the plot. A joke between them is that Norman has been obsessed with death since Ethel has known him: forever. Another joke is how different they are. Ethel is a free, optimistic, loving spirit (which Dillon captures beautifully), while Norman is—according to the script anyway–surly, pessimistic, and withholding.
We learn that their only child, Chelsea (a terrific Stacie Morgan Lewis) has never felt loved, or even liked, by her father, and this discord provides the second plot element. Chelsea comes to Golden Pond to introduce her parents to her fiancée and his young son, and to ask them if they would watch over Billy Ray, Jr. while she and Bill go to Europe. (Apparently, she has learned that her parents respond well to last minute surprises.) Changes ensue that those versed in dramedy will foresee. However, Feehan has cast Billy Ray, Jr. very well: Sabatino Cruz is fresh, energetic, and fun without being annoying.
The two most potentially interesting aspects of On Golden Pond are the troubled relationship between Norman and his grown daughter, and the omnipresent theme of death. The first conflict promises originality, as stories about fathers and sons abound, but father and daughter plays are still much less common. Certainly, Lewis, as Chelsea, makes this daughter’s pain very believable and manages the difficult task of playing a resentful, angry character while still engaging our affection and sympathy. However, we almost never see the withholding, defensive, cold man she describes. Granted, the script gives an actor relatively little to work with on the page, but Feehan and Naughton have chosen to present Norman as nothing more than mildly passive-aggressive and self-involved. His dialogue is played for humor, and his manner gives us no clue as to what fueled a lifetime of parental animosity towards his only child.
The second theme of On Golden Pond—aging and death—is more filled out in the script and thus in a very few instances we see a bit more of Norman’s fear and distress. Mostly, though, Naughton saunters amiably through a role that needs to be powered by a slow-burning fire. Dillon, once again, provides the depth of these scenes. Her Ethel becomes exasperated with her husband exactly because she loves him so dearly, and after all these years, it’s clear that she will relentlessly attempt to push him towards joy, just as she pushes him out to pick strawberries.
The other three characters—fiancée Bill, his son Billy Ray, Jr., and Charlie the mailman—are barely developed. It’s hard to tell how Charlie (a game Will Clark) advances the plot, and the running gag about his distinctive laugh quickly gets old. Josh Powell, as Bill, has been directed to play the role entirely as a funny (to us) weakling, and again Feehan, in failing to fill out both Norman and Bill, loses what has the potential to be one of the play’s strongest exchanges.
Fortunately, the production values are excellent, beginning with Marcus Abbott’s incredibly detailed evocation of Ethel and Norman’s house. Abbott, too, has designed the lighting, which is alternately haunting and clever. Kat Duffner’s witty costumes are pitch-perfect, and Alan Piotrowicz’s sound design—an important and poignant element in the show—is lovely.
Though in this production of On Golden Pond, Brian J. Feehan makes problematic choices for an already problematic script, fans of Mia Dillon and James Naughton may still relish the opportunity to see theater royalty close up.
On Golden Pond continues at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street in Ivoryton through June 11.
For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.767.7318 or visit: www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.