Monday, July 10, 2017

On Golden Pond

I have spent my life avoiding On Golden Pond, the 1979 play (and, then, movie) written by Ernest Thompson. This hasn't been easy -- the play has been, more or less, ubiquitous during the last 38 years. It was my perception that On Golden Pond was a life-affirming gentle comedy involving an old couple and their children -- something on the order of Steel Magnolias:  a show that makes you feel good about yourself.  I don't deny that there is a place for these kinds of shows and that they comprise a valid genre.  But, purely on the basis of description, I've always thought that this genre is not my cup of tea.  I acknowledge that this perception is pure bias -- after all, I didn't see On Golden Pond until yesterday, Sunday, July 9 when I attended a matinee performance of Thompson's play presented by a community theater group, Summerset Theater.  And, in my view, the show is not half-bad, a situation comedy that is a couple notches above TV sit-coms, a bit like the Bob Newhart show set at the New England resort.  On Golden Pond is reasonably diverting and, in fact, painless. The show is witty and has some good jokes.  The saccharine content, although considerable, is kept within tasteful restraint.  Indeed, the best descriptive term for the show is "tasteful."

As everyone now knows, On Golden Pond involves an old man spending the summer at a lake cabin in Maine.  The old man, Norman Thayer, is obsessed with death, although it's clear that his morbid thoughts are apotropaic -- he talks about death continuously to ward it off.  Thayer has a sweet, patient wife -- she is said to be about ten years younger than the hero.  The two old people seem lonely and Thayer regards his life as finished -- there's nothing waiting for him but death and the protagonist's quietly embittered despair is symbolized by a detached screen-door that the old man doesn't have the energy to repair.  Thayer's wife enjoys her life, has many happy memories of summers on Golden Pond as their lake is called, and she is associated with loons who raise their young on the pond and call out mournfully at all times of the day.  The play is formulaic -- Thompson sets up the situation and demonstrates Norman Thayer's somewhat self-indulgent unhappiness and, then, complicates the story with the oldest plot convention in history:  a stranger comes to town.  In this case, the stranger is a fifteen-year-old boy, the son of a Los Angeles dentist who is romancing the Thayer's 42-year-old daughter.  Daughter and dentist leave for Europe at the end of the third act (and just before intermission); the fifteen-year-old boy stays with the old couple.  After the intermission, we see that the screen door has now been fixed and that old and embittered Norman Thayer is now best friends with the youth.  He has been given a new lease on life.  Daughter returns, without the dentist (a puzzling element in the play), but with a wedding ring -- she has married the dentist in Brussels.  Everything threatens to end happily -- the daughter is married, the youth has found a mentor in the old man, the old man now enjoys his life and, indeed, plans to go to Los Angeles to see his new friend during the winter months.  Then, the hero has a heart attack but it's mild and the nitroglycerin dissolving under his tongue restores him to full health and all is well that ends well. 

Thompson has lavished care on writing parts for Norman and his wife, Ethel.  They are both fully realized characters and believable in an approximate kind of way.  Norman is a bully who taunts people with his sardonic witticisms -- he's a kind of "licensed fool" to use Shakespeare's term, someone who been allowed to make discourteous and mildly cruel remarks for so many years that he isn't even aware that he is hurting people in this way.  Although the character is supposed to be a Professor Emeritus of English, he seems basically illiterate -- he has shelf full of Reader's Digest condensed books, an anathema to any actual literature professor.  (He encourages the boy to read Swiss Family Robinson -- his own reading seems to be Mark Twain.)  Every English professor I've ever known (and I've known several) was proud of his knowledge and a show-off, incessantly citing lines from Shakespeare and poetry.  Norman doesn't act this way -- he contents himself with mumbled asides that are supposed to be funny but that are mostly just nasty.  But this show, I must say, with kin trapped at their isolated estate is not exactly Uncle Vanya; in fact, it's Chekhov-light  -- Norman doesn't ever say anything he can't  take back:  there is none of the hideous infighting that you experience when watching a play by Chekhov or Ibsen or, for that matter, a film by Ingmar Bergman.  Norman's wisecracks are shallow and none of the cuts that he inflicts go very deep at all.  And this is characteristic of the show:  it's all blithe and feather-light.  At the end of Act 2, Norman comes home panicked -- he has lost his way on roads and paths that he has known for fifty years.  There is a moment in which he shows real, stark terror at the prospect of losing his mind.  But his wife consoles him and this topic is forgotten -- Norman isn't suffering from Alzheimer's disease, apparently, merely a temporary lapse of attention and, despite a few feints in the direction of dementia, he remains sharp as a tack.  The part of the daughter is underwritten to the point of vanishing -- what has she done with her life?  What is her job?  She is clearly a liberated woman and has been successfully employed all her adult life, but we don't learn anything substantive about her.  The role of the dentist is also under-written and an absurd caricature to boot:  the dentist is portrayed as fearful of bears and Norman teases him on this account. But, of course, a dentist from Los Angeles has probably gone on expeditions where he shot bears, even large and fierce ones in Alaska -- after all dentists from Eden Prairie have shot much-beloved African lions -- and, certainly, someone from suburban Los Angeles would be no stranger to wild animals:  there are more coyotes and critters of that kind in the Golden State than in southern Maine.  The teenage boy, who should be hideously bored and miserable in this setting, is polite, charming, and, almost immediately, good friends with the old man.  Everything about the show is inconsequential -- Norman's heart attack is just a minor divertimento to spice up the play's otherwise bland last act.  My readers should not construe this review to conclude that I disliked the play -- in fact, I thought the play was well-scripted, cleverly written, and, generally, quite entertaining.  A minor character, a postman, suffers from unrequited love for Thayer's daughter -- he masks his sorrow with a weird cackling laugh and is a genuinely interesting, even, potentially tragic character.  And the show's best scene in which mother and daughter sing a kitschy campfire song from their childhoods is beautiful and genuinely poignant.

The production by the Summerset Theater company was effectively directed by John Deyo and well-acted.  Craig Johnson was charismatic and engaging as Norman Thayer and the company performed well.  I didn't detect any weaknesses in the presentation of the show and there was a good musical soundtrack as well.  The set by Cameron Davis was fussy and spectacularly realistic -- you could live in this cabin as designed and constructed by Mr. Davis and it seemed a nicer abode than my home. 

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