On Golden Pond
By Ernest Thompson
Directed by Juergen K. Tossman
Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.
When Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond premiered on Broadway in 1979, it was a modest success, running for only 126 performances, but winning a Best Actress Tony for the legendary Frances Sternhagen and a number of other awards. It’s been a staple of regional theater groups ever since, being a rare showcase for older talent (there was even a musical version performed locally at the Derby Dinner Playhouse in the very late 90’s, with book and lyrics by Thompson), and is probably best remembered for the 1981 Henry Fonda/Katherine Hepburn/Jane Fonda film version. It also reunited The Sound of Music stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer for a live 2001 television production, over a decade before The Sound of Music Live! made live productions on television a staple again on the small screen.
It’s also the latest offering from Louisville’s own Bunbury Theater, and it’s a production that shows why the show has such staying power. Its themes of love and aging, and generations bonding, are timeless, and the Bunbury show really drives home the message. It really is a beautiful story, sharply directed by Juergen K. Tossmann, and featuring an excellent cast.
The play is set in the living room of a summer home located next to the titular body of water, and we are quickly introduced to the elderly Thayer couple: Norman (Brad Castleberry), strong-willed but slowly losing his faculties as he approaches his 80th birthday, and Ethel (Ann Meyer), his devoted and equally obstinate wife. We get a true sense of a lasting relationship from these two, and Castleberry and Meyer turn in some amazing, soulful performances.
Over the course of their summer vacation, their daughter Chelsea (Tiffany Smith) comes to visit in time for Norman’s birthday festivities, bringing along her fiancé Bill (Francis Whitaker) and Bill’s son, Billy Ray (Connor McGuffey). Also in the wings is the local mailman Charlie (Brent Braun), Chelsea’s high school sweetheart. When Norman and Ethel agree to keep Billy Ray for the summer while Chelsea and Bill take an off-continent vacation, three generations come to terms with family responsibilities, hopefully leading to a late-in-life reconciliation of the strained relationship between Norman and Chelsea.
The show is leisurely paced, especially in the first act, and some viewers may find it too slow at times. But this is by the playwright’s design, and it’s a necessary way to bring the audience around to the simplicity of life in the golden years. The pace picks up significantly when the younger characters are introduced, and I don’t believe that’s by accident – it’s a comment on the mores of the changing generations.
Typical for a Bunbury production, the technical aspects are spot-on, especially with the amazingly detailed set designed by Bob Bush, and the beautifully understated lighting by Gerald Kean.
If you have experienced the change in life that comes with the advanced aging of your parents or other loved ones, or if you yourself are experiencing what life has in store for you in your twilight years, I can’t recommend this show enough. Considering the subject matter, it’s surprisingly upbeat and asks questions that will get you thinking long after you have left the theater.
Featuring Brent Braun, Brad Castleberry, Connor McGuffey, Ann Meyer, Tiffany Smith, and Francis Whitaker.
On Golden Pond
October 7-23, 2016
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40203
Craig Nolan Highley has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 12 years. He has worked with Bunbury Theater, Clarksville Little Theatre, Finnigan Productions, Louisville Repertory Company, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co., and WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre among others. He has been a member of the Wayward Actors Company since 2006, and currently serves as their Board President. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.