“On Golden Pond,” now playing at Church Hill Theatre, is the story of an old married couple enjoying a vacation at their Maine summer home. It’s a poignant family story with characters who love one another but need to negotiate rough spots and deal with ghosts from their past.
The play by Ernest Thompson is probably most familiar from the 1981 film version in which the lead parts were played by Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, with Jane Fonda as their daughter. Jane Fonda acquired the film rights to the play, seeing it as an ideal vehicle for her and her father, for whom it was his last appearance on-screen. Henry Fonda and Hepburn both won Oscars for their performances – his first, her fourth.
Thompson’s theatrical version, which premiered in 1979, featured Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen and ran for 382 performances; Craig Anderson directed. The Church Hill production is directed by Bonnie Hill.
The plot revolves around Norman and Ethel Thayer, who arrive at their country house in April, finding it in need of repairs. It becomes evident early that Norman is beginning to lose his short-term memory. Although he is retired from a position as an English professor, he makes a production of searching for jobs in the local paper – one gets the impression he is doing it to tease Ethel, who has evidently had to put up with such behavior more than once in the past. Later, Charlie, the mailman – whom they’ve known since he was a teenager – drops by and, over a cup of coffee, reminisces about the Thayer’s daughter Chelsea, on whom he had a crush when they were both young. And as it happens, he brings a letter from Chelsea, who promises to visit later that summer, bringing her new boyfriend Bill and his young son Billy.
The plot revolves around the relationships between the central couple and the various visitors who come to their lakeside home. Norman’s sometimes prickly exterior is balanced by Ethel’s ability to smooth things over and jolly him along. Chelsea, on the other hand, still nurses resentment over the way her father treated her when she was growing up. Chelsea’s new boyfriend Bill refuses to get drawn into the mind games Norman plays with everyone. On the other hand, young Billy, who stays with the Thayers while Chelsea and Bill vacation in Europe, soon finds himself adapting to the older couple’s ways and the country lifestyle. Billy loves going fishing with Norman — and teaching the older man the latest teenage slang.
In the Church Hill production, Brian McGunigle and Nita Wieczoreck are cast as the central characters. McGunigle, who is making his CHT debut as Norman, has numerous credits with the Tred Avon Players, including “A Man of No Importance,” and with Shore Shakespeare, including “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He makes the lead character–whose biting wit and cynical worldview might make him unpleasant company in real life–sympathetic and in the end, quite likable.
Wieczoreck is familiar to CHT audiences from numerous appearances in everything from musicals and comedies to dramatic roles, including “Is He Dead?” and “Oliver,” as well as backstage work, especially in costuming. She is warm and outgoing in the role of Ethel, putting up with her husband’s cranky side while showing concern for his lapses of memory; a good choice for the role. A particularly fun scene is where she and her daughter join in singing the songs of the summer camp on Golden Pond that they both attended as young girls.
Paul Briggs, who is establishing himself as a versatile character actor both at CHT and the Garfield, takes the role of Charlie the mailman, a local institution. He does a fine Down East accent, and effectively shows a character who is neither bright nor a deep thinker without stereotyping him as a local yokel.
Heather Oland, another CHT regular, has also appeared with Shore Shakespeare, most recently as Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She gives a strong performance as Chelsea, conveying both the warmth she feels for her mother and the tensions with her father. She calls her father “Norman” not “dad” while always calling her mother “Mommy.” While the role is less central than the two parents, it brings together several of the play’s key themes, and Oland’s performance makes the emotional connections clear.
Jeff Daly, takes the role of Bill Ray, Chelsea’s new boyfriend – a California dentist with a son from a previous marriage. The character is a bit reserved, not really hitting it off with Norman. The tension between the two is a prime example of the competitive stance Norman seems to bring to every relationship, whether in Monopoly games with Ethel, fishing with young Billy, or his entire relationship with Chelsea.
The role of Billy Ray Jr. is played by John Crook, a veteran of CHT’s Green Room Gang summer theater camp. His experience shows itself in a solid performance. He captures the young boy’s varying moods, from his initial boredom at the idea of spending the summer with two elderly people to his eventual enthusiastic joining Norman in competition over who can catch the biggest fish.
The setting for the play – a single room in the Thayer’s summer home – is quite appealing. The audience can see through the windows as characters enter and leave by the front door, and the lighting of the sky outside the windows evokes the mood of scenes with great effect. And close observers may notice a photo of Hepburn to one side of the living room. Kudos to Earl Lewin for the design, Carmen Grasso and Tom Rhodes for the construction, and Doug Kaufmann for the lighting design. The soundtrack by Patrick Fee – with a recurring motif of loon calls – adds to the overall mood, as well.
“On Golden Pond” will naturally appeal to older audiences, many of whom will see echoes of their own lives in the main characters’ relationships. But younger people will also relate to this story of growing up and growing old. “On Golden Pond” resonates with anyone who has fond memories of a summer spent at the lake or beach or had a special time with grandparents. A warm, nostalgic play with a fine director and cast to bring out the emotional nuances of the script, this is a production any theater-lover will want to see.
The play will continue for two more weekends, through April 22. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, with a $5 discount for CHT members; admission for students is $10. For reservations, call 410-556-5003 or visit the theater website, www.churchilltheatre.org.