Sea of sap
Katharine Hepburn took a lot of razzing for repeatedly rasping "The loons! The loons!" in the movie version of On Golden Pond. Insouciant young wags couldn't help but point out that Katharine the Great was acting a bit loony herself.
There's plenty of other stuff in both the movie On Golden Pond and in the Ernest Thompson play on which it was based to provoke wags, critics, and other wise guys into gleefully drawing their khukri knives and whacking away.
Ethel Thayer, however, leads the list of provocateurs. Played by Hepburn in the movie and by Juli Erickson in this staging by Dallas' 21st Century Road Gang Productions, Ethel is a goopy, grandmotherly type intent on spreading optimism, kindness, and understanding wherever she goes. And where she and her husband Norman go every summer is to their cabin retreat on Golden Pond, an idyllic lakeside hideaway somewhere in backwoods Maine. The Thayers have been going there every summer for 43 years to pick strawberries, menace the local bass, and exchange banter and blandishments with each other.
Ethel suffers from the same problem inherent to most Norman Rockwell paintings. Cute and winsome at first glance, she becomes increasingly cloying upon repeated exposure. She calls her husband an "old poop" and tosses around words like "oodles and oodles" so often you wonder if she's doing it to be deliberately irritating, like Robert Conrad in those old commercials where he dared you to knock the battery off his shoulder ("Go ahead. Call this an ordinary battery"). The treacle really starts to drip from the rafters, however, when Ethel conducts a dialogue with a Winnie-the-Pooh-like stuffed bear, something no actress should be compelled to do. Unfortunately, Erickson doesn't play against the part as written. Instead, she embraces the sugary elements of the role as if she were bent on contracting diabetes.
And then there's the Thayers' daughter, Chelsea, played by Jane Fonda in the movie. Fonda won considerable brownie points by wearing a two-piece swimsuit in the film, and looking darn good in it, too, though she had to have been in her late 40s at the time. Chelsea has been mired in that slough of Despond which appears to afflict a lot of women these days and consists of low self-esteem, a slew of inappropriate men, and an inability or unwillingness to conceive children. Her adult angst and edginess stem from the fact that Norman used to pick on her for being tubby when she was a little girl.
As played by Bethany Wright, Chelsea is almost as relentlessly pleasant as Ethel, though she does have a pinch of anger to work through. Chelsea's emotional wounds are quickly healed, however, with a few parental hugs and with the help of a good man.
He turns out to be Bill Ray (Todd Everett), a dentist who's got a lot of ready cash, a spiffy car, and a winning disposition. In a departure from the movie, Bill is black. Given the headlines of the day, this was a canny move by director Karen Lamb, and it could have injected some badly needed tension and dissonance into the play. Everett, however, distills any sense of resentment or hostility out of Bill, so that he, too, adds to the prevailing bonhomie on Golden Pond. He's even afraid of bears, for crying in the beer.
Bill has a son named Billy (Kentrell Stepney), who's a saucy little muggins, but good at heart, of course. Though he talks casually of "cruising for chicks" and "sucking face," it doesn't take long for the prevailing muse of goopiness at Golden Pond to infect him, either. In fact, all Norman has to do is send Billy to bed with a copy of Swiss Family Robinson, and by morning he's right as rain. Though Stepney looks too young to be "sucking face," he doesn't seem the least bit fazed by being onstage. Unfortunately, it's just that kind of precocious aplomb that makes child actors seem coy and unnatural.
Charlie the postman (Gerald Fitzgerald) is the fourth member of the crew. Fitzgerald, known to Dallas audiences as Detective Foster in four of Pegasus Theatre's Black & White Mysteries, provides a little comic relief as Chelsea's amiable doofus of an ex-boyfriend. A good comic actor, Fitzgerald makes the most of a part whose sitcom goofiness is somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the play.
Last, but not least, is Norman himself. Henry Fonda won an Oscar for this part in the movie, and it's easy to see why. A curmudgeon with a heart of gold, Norman gets all the funny lines in the play, of which there are quite a few. He is one of those foggy fellows who wrap themselves in a cocoon of pseudo-spaciness and senility in order to avoid obligations, be they menial chores or serious emotional debts. However, he's also a milquetoast racist, an anti-Semite, and a gay-basher who notes that one of Maine's best attractions is the fact that there are "no indigenous Jews or Negroes" in the state.
Norman is an interesting mixture of charm and noxiousness, and he's the only ambiguous (and therefore human) character onstage. The problem is that he, too, succumbs to the touchy-feely atmosphere on Golden Pond virtually without a struggle. It happens with lightning speed when he discusses the issue of premarital sex with Bill. Bill wants permission to share Chelsea's bed under her parents' roof. The issue of hanky-panky at mom and dad's may have been a sticky wicket 10 years ago, but it's pretty tame territory today. Miscegenation, however, is not. This is a scene where there should be some real venom behind Norman's quips, yet within five minutes Bill and Norman are virtually clinging to each other's necks in a tango of mutual appreciation.
The same holds true for Norman's big showdown with Chelsea. You expect some pyrotechnics here, but in a statically blocked scene, father and daughter come to a rapprochement quicker than Chamberlain and Hitler.
Grant James as Norman has the appealing side of Norman's character down pat. He takes the big, slow, softball straight lines he's fed and whacks them out of the park. The problem is that this production really needs a more malignant Norman, whom we may or may not come to accept warts and all, not an old Mr. Softy Norman who's just a sheep in wolf's clothing.
On Golden Pond has some funny and sweet moments, but like most sweets, it eventually sets your teeth on edge.
On Golden Pond runs through October 28 at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake. Call 948-1946.
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