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"On Golden Pond," Ernest Thompson's syrupy, splendid look at old age, parenting and love, evokes a beautiful picture. Jane Fonda diving off the dock. Katharine Hepburn nestled with Henry Fonda watching loons on the lake. Stage productions fight those Oscar-winning performances.
The show takes a prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside look at the relationship between Norman and Ethel Thayer. A cottage on Golden Pond has been their home for the past 48 summers. Old age and dementia threaten a declining Norman; a daughter who remains cold and distant from her father worries Ethel. Is this the last summer "On Golden Pond?"
It is tough, if not impossible, to fairly judge the Lab Theater's production of "On Golden Pond." Original director Robert Runck departed two weeks before the show opened. Lab Theater founder Annette Trossbach and Lois Keuhne stepped in. The show openly reflects such turmoil.
The Lab Theater's production remains a work very much in progress. Individual performances are strong, just raw and not fully integrated into the ensemble. This leaves the show flat, without any emotional arcs within the scenes or the night as a whole. Major kudos to the actors and crew for getting the show up, but its obviously not the effort anyone wanted to present to audiences.
Blocking appears new or just-learned, unfortunate since much of "On Golden Pond" depends on what's unspoken as much as what's said and done. Victor Caroli (Norman) and Louise Wigglesworth (Ethel) never feel like a twosome deep into their fifth decade of marriage. Their Norman and Ethel almost never touch; directors not locked in crisis mode - as happened here - can help actors develop and deepen crucial on-stage chemistry.
Longtime Naples Players volunteer Caroli makes his Lab Theater debut as the original grumpy old man Norman Thayer, Jr. His great brushy white mustache adds authenticity, as does his patrician bearing. If some of Norman's secret softness gets lost, Caroli makes up for with extra helpings of crustiness.
As is wont to happen, thirteen-year-old Ryan Crider comes near to stealing "On Golden Pond," loons and all. His natural energy proves perfect for the sassy, mischievous Billy Ray. His are the show's comedic high points. The young man gives just as good as he gets. Caroli and Crider have the show's best chemistry; their back and forth truly delights.
This chemistry extends to the deeper parts of "On Golden Pond." Watch for their moments and see the most honest emotional truths of the night. Here, Norman actually finds a reason to open his heart. For Billy Ray, Norman finally forgives years of bitterness toward his daughter because she brought a grandson - even if it wasn't her own - into his life.
Wigglesworth, a Lab Theater veteran, matches well with Caroli; they do look charming together, staring out over the audience as they search the lake for loons. Wigglesworth is such a strong personality that I'm never sure she quite captures the playful goofiness that defines Ethel for me. I can see an argument for a stronger, more modern, less subservient Ethel; I'm just not sure the portrayal got all the way there.
Lois Keuhne's set captures summer on the lake in Maine in just about every way. Fishing nets, oars, hats, rods, reels, comfortable furniture, binoculars, a cute gas stove and pinecones in a basket on the table complete the look. I love the mismatched bait store explosion aspect of it all - and the Happy Birthday sign made using fishing supplies!
Despite the issue, there are some strong moments to be found in "On Golden Pond." Caroli's cranky, snappy one-liner bring laughter. The tender moment between Wigglesworth and Caroli as Norman confesses he can't find the strawberry patch. Wigglesworth clawing for the phone as Ethel faces life without Norman. Support these actors - and bask in the glow of "On Golden Pond."
Hi Linda. Hi Taylor. Have you seen "On Golden Pond?" Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.