I am not familiar with any production of On Golden Pond. I have never seen it on stage, and I’ve never seen the 1981 film version starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda. That is probably a good thing since it would be easy to compare them with this new production opening on Broadway starring James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams. This production originated at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C and is directed by Leonard Foglia.
Norman and Ethel Thayer are spending what may be their last summer on their beloved Golden Lake. Norman is becoming increasingly forgetful and suffers from heart palpitations. They have spent 48 summers growing old together and raising their daughter, Chelsea, on the lake.
Norman, the sharp-tongued “old poop” has been estranged from Chelsea for years. His spirited wife Ethel invites Chelsea to visit. She agrees and brings her new boyfriend and his thirteen-year-old son. The once serene atmosphere of Golden Pond becomes bitter and tense as the family tries to come to terms with old grudges and bitter feelings before it is too late.
Leslie Uggams and James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones it seems was born to play Norman Thayer. He easily and affectingly uses his brooding presence and projects his deep voice to bring out the curmudgeon in the character. Even though he enjoys torturing almost everyone he meets, he is very likeable. Deep down there is still a loving man that just needs something or someone to bring him to the surface. Jones easily gets the most laughs. Even without uttering a line his glares are enough to get a chuckle. The overly comedic tone of the play is a detriment to the tender heartwarming moments. In the scene where he confesses to Ethel that he didn’t pick any berries because he couldn’t remember how to find them is only half as touching as it could be because I was waiting for him to crack a joke.
Uggams is a nice counterpart to Jones. Whereas Norman is very cynical and negative, Ethel is always bright, cheery, and welcoming when she is talking about the birds or her childhood doll, but when needed she can change very quickly to a serious straight-forward woman. When she confronts her daughter about calling Norman a “son of a bitch,” which he can be, she slams her hand on the table and says, “That son of bitch is my husband.” You could hear a pin drop in the theater.
Joining Jones and Uggams are Linda Powell as Chelsea, Peter Francis James as Bill, Craig Brockhorn as Charlie Martin the mailman, and Alexander Mitchell as Billy Ray. All of them do a nice job. Linda Powell comes into her stride in the second act and the scenes with Jones and young Alexander Mitchell are very funny.
Ray Klausen’s scenic design is very convincing as the interior of an old cottage with dust and all, and the lighting applied by Brian Nason nicely simulated the look of the moon shining on a lake.
Some problems are not fixed in one weekend
The one problem I have with On Golden Pond is the way it seems that all the world’s problems can be solved with just a secluded weekend on the lake. Chelsea has built up years and years of bitter feelings that, by the way Linda Powell plays it, cannot be overcome in that short of a time. The story is so focused on the comedy to be had in Norman’s character that it glosses over any chance to delve deeper into anything really serious.
While the material in On Golden Pond is lightweight, James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams due their best with what they are given. The comedy in the play is first rate and very entertaining, but the comedy plays too big of a part in a story that has the potential to be so much more than a serious of jokes.
On Golden Pond is playing now at The Cort Theater. For On Golden Pond tickets visit ticketsnow.com.Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.