A script that’s intelligent and subtle but far from earth-shaking script requires exceptional acting to make it really shine.
Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond (1978) is that kind of script, but it isn’t receiving that kind of production at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble (through Feb. 2).
There are a number of advantages that the 1981 movie had that this production lacks: The real-life tension between emotionally remote Henry Fonda and his then-middle-aged daughter Jane, palpable onscreen. The last hurrah of two beloved screen icons who we’d grown to love and revere, working together for the first and only time: Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. Thompson’s opening-up of his own script, so we could see the beauty of their summer retreat in Maine, and the fishing on the lake, and the dock where daughter Chelsea tried to do her backflips just to impress her father Norman. He’s a curmudgeon who isn’t easy to like — but since Henry Fonda had been an admired movie star for 40 years by that time, he (and Hepburn too) brought a built-in fan base and years of accumulated affection with them: We were ready to like the old codger even if he did say lots of nasty, spiteful things.
A stage version produced 30 years later in Spokane has none of those advantages. The risks are greater; the emotions need to be etched more deeply; the dialogue has to crackle with sarcastic affection.
In the Henry Fonda role of Norman Thayer — 80 years old and crusty, a retired professor who has a hard shell to keep everyone else out but now is starting to feel the onset of death — J.P. O’Shaughnessy is delivering the zingers without demonstrating just why this elderly fellow feels such a deep need to hurt other people with his verbal jousting. But On Golden Pond isn’t just about an old guy who’s funny; it’s about an elderly fellow who’s both funny and afraid. Norman is rude, racist and remote; a better production would insist on givng the darker edges of Norman’s fear more exposure.
For a complete experience, playgoers have to acknowledge Norman’s contradictory sides too. Simply laughing at the spectacle of a spry old fart still having the gosh-darn gumption to whip out some witticisms short-circuits the play. Sure, wrinkled old men still tell jokes, let fly with insults and talk about sex. But that’s not all there is to uncover here, and if “Golly, the energy that old fella still has!” is an audience’s primary reaction, a lot of the play’s meaning gets neglected.
Comedy lives on quick contrasts. But if the only contrast that fuels the jokes here has to do with dying old men versus the lively jokes they tell, then the performance and the playgoers are settling for the stereotyped un-surprise of codgers with energy.
And yet Interplayers’ opening-night audience, healthy in size, was willing to laugh demonstratively at the little quirks of mimed stage business — people puttering around and getting confused inside their own homes as we look on — in the manner of people who are quite conscious that they are watching a live show, have paid good money for it and expect to be able to display what a good time they’re having while doing it.
Old farts aren’t supposed to be quite so crotchety, quite so blatantly evasive, so explicit about sex, so mean-spirited. The path of least resistance is to laugh at the wordplay and witticisms without engaging the darker truths: fear of death, regret over emotional connections severed, a sense that your life’s work is over and you’re no longer useful.
Instead, ideally, On Golden Pond ought to set forth several contrasts. Norman jokes about death but fears it. He criticizes his daughter but wants to love her. He does love her but can’t tell her. He keeps people at an emotional distance using techniques that are sometimes obvious, sometimes intricate.
Forgetfulness, failing health, loneliness, emotional estrangement, impending death, feelings of uselessness — in elderly people’s lives, these are earthquakes, or at least fault lines that are widening and threatening to drag them down.
But they aren’t played that way in director Maynard Villers’ production. There’s not enough at stake here to justify the leisurely pace of the long opening act during a long evening in the theater. As Norman and Ethel Thayer, J.P. O’Shaughnessy and Maria Caprile shuffle around the inside of their lakeside summer house, puttering around and putting in time during their twilight years. The emotional stakes aren’t raised to an interesting level, really, until the first act’s third and final scene, when the Thayers’ daughter Chelsea (Olivia Brownlee) arrives to deliver a chilly “Hello, Norman” greeting to her father and the tension becomes evident. Chelsea has brought her fiance (director Villers) and his son from a previous marriage (Jared Alme) in tow, and each of them are alloted a scene to establish that they’re not going to put up with any of Norman’s manipulative bullshit.
Caprile makes nice with everyone for a couple of acts, and she’s believable as the woman who sees Norman’s good side. More than anyone else here, Ethel’s in touch with the simple pleasures of life, and Caprile shows us that. But she could use more zowie in her stingers: When Norman jokes about taking a job reading to an invalid, Ethel “feels bad for the invalid.” Later, she refers to Norman as “the sweetest man in the world — and only I know it.”
While the big confrontation with her father seemed brief and almost perfunctory, Brownlee was especially good and conveying her lingering resentment, staring out a window at a father who’d held her aloof for far too many years. As the teenager who bonds with old Norman during some afternoons spent fishing, Alme adds energy to an otherwise slower, older evening.
Villers the actor is effective in his one scene — leery of rustic living and deferential to his potential father-in-law, he seems meek and conventional until a startling speech about not putting up with any more of Norman’s mind games. It’s delivered with quiet determination.
Villers the director, however, allows the pace to lag and fills the scene-changes with New Age-y Muzak, pointlessly. Actors’ backs were turned to the audience during some important oddly under-emphasized emotional confrontations: Norman realizing how much his mind is fading; Chelsea lashing out at her parents; Ethel declaring just how much she loves her husband of 48 years.
There are still things to admire in Thompson’s script. It hints at death without depicting it directly, hints at reconciliation without getting all syrupy about it; suggests that even octogenarians are capable of change, even if they won’t live long enough to reap all the benefits. Norman is a funny, quirky, complex guy, recognizable to baby boomers whose parents were of a certain generation. There’s some real suspense over intermission about how Norman will respond to these new men in Chelsea’s life. And in the Chelsea/Norman faceoff, we can see reflected a lot of the generational conflict so many of us have witnessed or experienced. So there’s value in still producing this script -- but not as listlessly as this, not when there’s a Fonda-Hepburn monument available at every video store.