By Kathie Isaac-Luke
For The Union Democrat
“On Golden Pond,” which opened Friday night at Stage 3 Theatre, is an engaging portrait of a long married couple.
It was written by playwright Ernest Thompson and first produced in 1979.
Thompson adapted his play for the 1981 movie of the same name starring Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn and won an Academy Award for his screenplay.
Although I did see the movie years ago, I found the play to be a more immediate and ultimately more satisfying experience.
This is no doubt due to the wonderful direction by Jon Dambacher and the terrific cast he has assembled.
“On Golden Pond” is a funny yet reflective play exploring how relationships evolve over time. In the first scene, Norman and Ethel Thayer are arriving to spend summer at the lake cottage where they have come for nearly 50 years.
The vacation home holds many memories, some happy and some bittersweet. Dambacher and the actors achieve just the right balance between the humorous and the serious.
In an extraordinary performance, Michael Lynch plays Norman Thayer. Approaching his 80th birthday, Norman is quite the pessimist. But, his negative remarks are so penetrating and witty that they frequently elicit laughter even when he is being insensitive.
In this finely tuned performance, Lynch conveys the vulnerability beneath Norman’s façade as he faces memory loss and the fears of advancing age.
As Ethel Thayer, Francine La Meire energetically plays the perfect foil to her husband’s cynicism. Ten years younger than Norman, Ethel is more curious and vital.
While Norman is content to sit around the cabin reading the classified ads, Ethel ventures out into the woods to pick berries or observe the loons that populate the lake.
Although Ethel frequently cajoles and corrects her husband, there is never any doubt about her deep affection and concern for him. The chemistry between these two actors is wonderful, and their sense of comic timing is right on target.
Ben Adriano plays Charlie the mailman, who delivers letters with a measure of gossip to the lake residents. Since Charlie was once in a relationship with the Thayer’s estranged daughter, Chelsea, he provides a sense of continuity to the story.
Adriano appears later in the play as Bill, Chelsea’s latest boyfriend. So deftly does Adriano shift between these two roles, I might not have known they were played by the same actor had it not been indicated in the program.
He is especially excellent in an awkward scene where he first meets Norman and eagerly seeks his approval.
When daughter Chelsea decides to visit the summer home after a long absence, she brings with her a few surprises.
The Thayers learn that Chelsea is quite serious about new boyfriend Bill, who has a 13-year-old son, Billy. The couple has also planned a trip to Europe and convince Ethel and Norman to keep Billy for a month.
In a finely drawn performance, Katryn Weston captures the disquiet and reserve of a daughter who has never resolved a strained relationship with her father. In a memorable scene, Ethel confronts her daughter, tells her that no one has experienced a childhood without some regret, and advises her to get on with her life.
In an impressive debut, Colin Gordon plays 13-year-old Billy Ray. Reticent at first, Billy is soon going on fishing trips with Norman and taking his advice on reading material.
He brings new energy into the home and gives Ethel someone to fuss over. Gordon’s honest performance captures the tenuousness of his newfound situation, as well as the warmth he eventually demonstrates toward Norman and Ethel. Gordon has a natural stage presence, and I suspect we will be seeing more of him in future productions.
In the end, Billy is the catalyst that draws the family closer together. When the very tentative reconciliation between Norman and Chelsea finally occurs, it is all the more believable because it is entirely in keeping with the tone of the play.
With its funny and tender moments, this poignant production is richly entertaining and ends on a note of affirmation. The play’s themes of love, forgiveness, aging and the changing perceptions of different generations offer something with which everyone can identify. When Norman and Ethel pack up to leave the cottage until the next season, the ever present loons are calling on the lake, reminding us of the renewing cycles of life.
Ron Cotnam’s simple set effectively captures the essence of the well lived-in summer cottage.
The contemporary costumes are by Diana Newington, and lighting and sound design are by Matt Leamy.
There is live music in the great room an hour before curtain and a lovely exhibit of paintings in the lobby by featured artist Diane Borge.
“On Golden Pond” runs through Aug. 10. For reservations or more information, call 536-1778 or visit www.stage3.org.