'Golden Pond' bridges generations
January 27, 2009 · Updated 3:04 PM
By ERIC HORSTING
For The Beachcomber
Norman Thayer, the 79-year-old lead character in “On Golden Pond,” completing its run this weekend in Drama Dock’s Blue Heron production, is not very nice to his family, let alone the rest of the world.
In fact, Ernest Thompson, who wrote the 1979 play when he was just 28, said of Norman, “He’s a real bastard when you get down to it, but his wife, Ethel, puts up with him anyway. Everyone wants someone like that — to put up with him until he dies.” But Thompson also says that there’s a lot of love in Norman’s small family — Ethel and daughter Chelsea, now in her early 40s.
Finding the balance between Norman’s misanthropy and his love is the job for director Phil Dunn: If Norman’s too mean, how can an audience warm to him?
At his worst, Norman reveals streaks of racism, sexism and anti-semitism as well as hatred for his daughter because she wasn’t a boy he could teach to go fishing. At his best, Norman befriends Billy, the teenage son of the man Chelsea will marry and reconciles with Chelsea.
The play’s journey to those moments is a hard one because Norman is a hard case who, says Ethel, has spent his whole life worrying about death. Now that it’s approaching, with its physical problems and memory loss, Norman is even more aware of his mortality than usual.
Ethel, his spouse of at least 48 summers on Golden Pond, where the couple has a lovely Maine summer cottage, is Norman’s caretaker, a lifetime enabler of his verbal abuse (he was, after all, an English professor, an expert with words).
There’s little to suggest that Ethel has ever seriously challenged Norman, and she has her own problems, including her obsession with Elmer, a childhood boy-doll she still adores and talks to when she’s alone.
Dunn shows his awareness of these issues when he inserts between scenes the old Mills Brothers tune “You Always Hurt the One You Love.”
There’s the hurt and the love, and Dunn’s actors manage to find both.
Chaim Rosemarin as Norman is terrific at enunciating Norman’s sarcasm (the word means “cutting”), as all the while his face, especially his eyes, betray the overwhelming fear he feels.
Thompson even allows Norman a rare moment of outright honesty when he gets lost in the woods and manages to find his way back to Ethel: “I couldn’t remember where the road was,” he says. “It scared me half to death. I came running back to you. I feel safe here with you.”
And Bette Kimmel permits Ethel’s moments of frustration to peek through, especially with her body language: She throws up her hands, literally, many times, even as she struggles to keep her love alive and her family happy.
Susan Harris, who looks a bit like Jane Fonda, who played Chelsea in the successful 1981 film adaptation, mimics Ethel’s falsely radiant smile on her way to emotional freedom: She finally marries, she says, a man who’s an adult, the dentist Bill Ray who’s the only one to put the screws to Norman.
Chris Ott captures with intensity and conviction Ray’s honesty as well as his fears: He’s afraid of bears in the Maine woods, which is the first thing we learn about him, so it’s a welcome surprise when he tackles the curmudgeonly Norman.
The show’s ultimate catalyst, though, is Ray’s son Billy, who breaks through Norman’s reserve with a refreshing teenage frankness that bridges a wide generation gap.
Kenese Parker, playing Billy, is very comfortable on stage and with a group of adult actors, which is a perfect description of Billy’s own role in the play.
He’s there to change Norman’s language, teaching the old professor a few things about the honesty of teen slang. Norman comes to love Billy’s expressions such as “sucking face” for kissing and “cool breeze” for someone who’s OK.
And the interchange is mutual, as Norman urges classic novels on Billy, who takes to them like a fish to water.
I should add that Kirk Beeler, as Charlie the mailman and Chelsea’s teenage first love, is very funny as a native down-Easter who provides plenty of levity and a spot-on Maine accent as well as an easy acceptance of his fate (not to have married Chelsea) that could be a lesson to the Thayer family.
—Eric Horsting is The Beachcomber’s former arts editor.
‘On Golden Pond’
The production, presented by Drama Dock and Vashon Allied Arts, finishes its run this weekend at the Blue Heron.
The play’s performances this weekend are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 30 and 31, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1.
Tickets, $10 to $15, are available at Books by the Way, the Heron’s Nest and the Blue Heron. Call Vashon Allied Arts at 463-5131 for more information.