ON GOLDEN POND; At the Eisenhower Theater through February 17.
With unpretentious drama and comedy, "On Golden Pond," the new play at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, says things about aging, parenting and love that the fatuous and fashionable psycho-intellectual successes of stage and screen completely miss.
It's a marvelous play. You wouldn't think that an entire evening with an elderly couple during the uneventful 48th summer they spend together in their Maine cottage could be fascinating, but it is. The dialogue is low-key humorous, rather than sharply witty, and the pathos underneath is subtle but unsentimental, so that the play's value would probably not show in reading. It needs to be brilliantly acted, and, with Frances Sternhagen and Tom Aldredge as the couple, it is.
The excellent Hudson Guild Theater production was directed by Craig Anderson and designed by Steve Rubin.
The hero of this play is a cantankerous charmer of 80, whose pet bigotries are hopelessly unfashionable, and whose unfamiliarity with current cliches leaders him to speculate as to why the telephone operator cautioned him to "Have a good day." His memory is impaired, but his sense is not. His household routine is to announce his coming death, a polished act that his wife says he has been doing since they first met.
She is a fine example of the no-nonsense upper-class woman, whose sterling strengths are equally free of silly decoration and the tarnish of age. Asked what happened to her daughter's husband, she replies succinctly, "He didn't work out." When her husband has a heart attack, she asks God not to take him yet, pointing out, reasonsably enough, that "You wouldn't want him -- he's an old poop!"
Her finest moment is when the daughter comes on with that whiney routine we are only too familiar with from "Autumn Sonata," "Interios," countless other dramas, and therapy-filled lives. This litte old white-haired lady sits quietly while her robust, 42-year-old daughter delivers that whole speech about what was wrong with the way her father treated her, and the way her mother treated her, and what they expected, and what she failed to fulfill. "So you had a miserable childhood," the mother says calmly but not unkindly. "So your father was overbearing and your mother ignored you. What else is new?"
Damned if it doesn't shock the daughter into pulling herself together. The way these scenes are usually played, the mother is cowed by remorse, and the dramatist sides with the poor, deprived grown-up child. Here, it's quite clear that the reason the father loves hr less than he does her stepson is not, as the first smugly suggests, that he expected her to be a boy and/or a champion; it's simply that she is less of a person than the stepson.
The great abstracts of death and devotion are handled with equally clear depth. Having led long, full, successful and comfortable lives, these people have an xcellent sense of what love is about, but are as alarmed and puzzled as anyone about death. Presented with a stark lack of high-flown mystery, the question of death is high-flown mystery, the question of death is acknowledged but unanswerable; still, the question is posed effectively, which is enough of an achievenment.
The play is Ernest Thompson's first Broadway production. It's a pleasure to note the partially Washington-based training of several fine talents: Thompson studied theater at the University of Maryland, the American University and the Catholic University; Frances Sternhagen was a regular at Arena Stage and Olney Theater before her numerous New York successes; and Ronn Carroll, who makes a wonderful small part out of the Maine mailman, began at Arena Stage and was conductor of the U.S. Navy Chorus here.