BY SANDY STAGGS
Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” is a poignant, touching tale of mortality, forgiveness and reconciliation. And the production at Walhalla Civic Auditorium takes full advantage of these facets for a well-cast, engrossing evening of emotional entertainment.
While the Academy Award-winning film starring Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda may be more revered today than its dramatic source material, the play, has for the most part, withstood the test of time.
Bill Chiusano (WCA’s business manager) and Dona Shiflette (a seasoned veteran of Upstate stages) star as the elderly couple Norman and Ethel Thayer who have just arrived for their 48th summer at their cottage on Golden Pond in Maine. The home is in disrepair and Norman, a retired college professor, is keenly aware that this may be their last hurrah.
Their estranged and childless daughter Chelsea (Tracie Freeman who is more stunning than ever in her head scarves) arrives from California with her new dentist beau, Bill Ray (Todd Barnette), and his son, Billy (Ethan Waldrep), to celebrate Norman’s 80th birthday.
Chelsea is close to Ethel (she still calls her “Mommie”) but harbors a lifetime of resentment toward her father, whom she refers to as “Norman.” Chelsea convinces her parents to watch over 13-year-old Billy while they traipse across Europe and eventually marry in Brussels.
Meanwhile, the Thayers adore young Billy and Norman takes him under his wing and shares his passion for nature, fishing and literature. And when Chelsea and Billy Ray return, she makes a concerted effort to re-establish a friendship with her father before it’s too late.
Directed Jimmy O. Burdette has coaxed some fine performance from the entire cast in this production, especially from Dona Shiflette, who has a stupendous sense of comedic timing and dramatic inflection. Her facial expression is simply priceless when Norman reveals to her that he discussed their sex life with Bill senior, who broaches the uncomfortable subject of premarital sleeping arrangements under Norman’s roof.
Chiusano’s Norman is less curmudgeonly than the preeminent portrayal by Fonda (an actor whom Chiusano has a deep affinity for, having previously directed “12 Angry Men” and twice played Juror #8), but he pleasantly plays up the sardonic wit and intelligence of his character. And the final scene with Shiflette alone is worth the price of admission.
Freeman (who I last saw in “The Birds” at Abbeville Opera House) digs deep into Chelsea’s anger and insecurities and Barnette (who I had the pleasure of seeing in “Foxfire” at the Foothills Playhouse last summer) is a formidable foe for Norman.
As Charlie, the mailman who has harbored a crush for Chelsea since childhood, Stuart Adamo lends an affable sense of local color to the proceedings and has the best accent in the bunch.
But the biggest surprise is young Waldrep who tackles Billy’s spirit, knack for boyhood antics, and eagerness to be an ingénue with gusto. He is even more impressive here than his remarkable Colin this spring in “The Secret Garden” at the Foothills Playhouse.
Needless to say, one cannot help but compare the live version with the fantastic film. And if you’re of a certain age, you will recall fondly Ms. Fonda’s heartbreaking speech when she accepted her father’s only Oscar on his behalf because he was too ill to attend. He died some five months later.
Thompson, who also authored the screenplay, improved on his script, fully developing the father-daughter dynamic and more slowly building Norman’s friendship with Billy Ray, which began antagonistically in the film. In this trimmed version of the play, they are pals immediately.
But all of the good lines originated in the play and are delivered impeccably here: “Wanna dance or would you rather just suck face?” and Norman’s quip to his daughter, “I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.”
And though the one-liners are clever, the serious issues addressed in “On Golden Pond” are never overshadowed. This work was one of the first to deal with Alzheimer’s in a painful scene when Norman loses his way on the street he has been walking for more than half of his life.
My only criticism of “On Golden Pond” is that Ethel’s admonishing slap across Chelsea’s face when her daughter criticizes Norman misses by a foot and is wimpy, wimpy, wimpy. And though I can’t recall the stage directions in the script, Billy first enters the cottage with a boom box playing The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which seems out of character for young Billy. In 1979, it seems more likely he would dig contemporary California music acts such as the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac.
And speaking of music, Burdette and Warren Ashmore use Dave Groin’s Oscar-nominated score for most of the play which, in addition to the bird and nature sound cues, lends a delicate ambience to the pastoral setting on a beautiful pond with plenty of loons.
The marvelous rustic house set was also designed by Burdette and is adorned with fresh greenery and a wooden boat dock and porch.
Behind the scenes, April Lecroy and Ashely Taylor are stage mangers, Renae Richey is on lights and Warren Ashmore is on the sound board.
“On Golden Pond” continues Sunday, Aug. 28 at 2:30 p.m. at Walhalla Civic Auditorium, 101 E.N. Broad Street in Walhalla. Call (864) 638-5277 or visit www.walhallacivic.com.