A crowd-pleasing revival of Ernest Thompson sentimental 1979 play, “On Golden Pond”, is the current offering at the Ivoryton Playhouse. Opening well before Memorial Day, the comedy is as good a sign as any of the upcoming summer theatre season.
Set in a rustic cabin in Maine (perfectly detailed by scenic desire Marcus Abbott), “On Golden Pond” finds aging couple Norman and Ethel (James Naughton and Mia Dillon) reopening their vacation lake home for another season to pick strawberries and listen to the loons. During the summer the story takes place, they are visited by estranged daughter Chelsea (Stacie Morgain Lewis) who has had a rocky relationship with Norman since childhood and has her fiancé Bill (Josh Powell) and his son Billy (a winning Sabatini Cruz) in tow. With encouragement from Ethel, Chelsea and Bill head for a European vacation leaving Billy in Maine to fish and bond with Norman.
I had the pleasure of seeing the original Broadway production of “On Golden Pond” and recall really enjoying it. It must be noted, however, that time has not been kind to this bittersweet comedy. Norman’s casual racism got laughs in 1979 but crickets at Ivoryton. Thompson apparently tweaked the script since 1979 but why he decided to leave in the several anti-Semitic and LGBTQ jokes is a mystery. He might also have checked his simplistic writing most notably where he solves years of resentment between Chelsea and Norman with a five minute conversation. The play is on a sitcom level at times and just hasn’t aged well. The superior 1982 film version, also scripted by Thompson and starring Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, did a better job of fleshing out these characters and their issues.
That said, you will still have an enjoyable time watching professionals like Dillon and Naughton imbue their roles with wit, skill and humanity. Longtime Connecticut actors, the pair have obvious chemistry and wear these roles as comfortably as the various sun hats Norman tries on for Ethel’s amusement. In the thankless role of Chelsea, who can seem whiny and entitled in the writing, Lewis does a good job of making this difficult woman sympathetic. Director Brian J. Feehan might have, however, given his actress something more to do with her hands instead of constantly shoving them in her pockets. Cruz is an absolute delight as young Billy never going for easy laughs or making this smart teenager cloying. Powell has his best scene and does very well sparring with Naughton but, in a role screaming to be cut, Charlie, the jovial mailman who has a longtime crush on Chelsea, is seriously overplayed by Will Clark.
Marcus Abbott gets extra credit not only for his great set but also the season-changing lighting design. Kat Duffner’s costuming is suitably New Englandy for Norman and Ethel and Alan Piotrowicz’s sound design really makes those loons (one of Thompson’s more heavy-handed metaphors here) sound like they are having a great time. Most audiences seeing this gentle comedy will, too.
Note: At the matinee I attended six cell phones rang out during the first act. When are people going to learn how to mute or, better yet, leave their phones in the car? The actors had to have heard it. Where is Patti LuPone when you need her?
“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.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.