"On Golden Pond" is a beautiful play, richly comical on the surface, deeply moving below.
The Eisenhower's opening last night was rewarded with spontaneous bursts of laughter and periods of quiet attention, punctuated at the end with cheers for an excellent company led by Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen. Actor Ernest Thompson's first produced play will be here through Feb. 17.
This is sort of play many theatergoers have been missing, its acceptance and affirmation of life not unlike the quality Thornton Wilder poured into "Our Town" and those perceptive, endearing short plays that led to it. Thompson never slavers over the people or the situation he dramatizes. He presents them with a shrewd ear, humorous eye and understood affection.
Norman and Ethel have arrived at their Maine cottage for their 48th summer, going about the business of taking the dust cloths off the comfortably worn furniture and exchanging small talk edged with the familiarity time brings a close couple.
Soon Norman will be celebrating his 80th birthday, a decade older than Ethel. By the time May has turned into September, their only child, daughter Chelsea, will arrive with her latest boyfriend and his 13-year-old son. There will be shades of long-gone but not forgotten conflicts, and two generation gaps will be affectingly bridged before these calm, tender, immensely funny five scenes in two acts are ended.
But there is more to this than the humor Thompson finds in his characters.
Norman, the play's focus, is an immensely rich character, and Aldredge plays him with a fine actor's grand awareness of a rewarding role. A retired professor, Norman has a wry, learned humor, never pedantically dry but awarely mocking, just on the verge of being cruel. He is the sort of person who has spent a lifetime protecting himself with a kind of defensive mockery. He will tell Chelsea: "I didn't know we were mad. I thought we just didn't like each other."
This has had an unsettling effect on Chelsea's personality. She feels it was a son, not a daughter, that Norman wanted. Her first marriage was a bust and at 42 she's both delighted and a bit afraid of trying marriage again. Barbara Andres conveys this fatherdaughter alienation splendidly, and their scene together is what makes this more than a conventional, easy comedy.
Ethel is the balance wheel for Norman, and rarely has the role of the perceptive, understanding wife been so deftly caught, both in the writing and in Sternhagen's superb performance. An original Arena Stager, Sternhagen has gone on to a Tony win and four nominations as a New York star in "Equus," "Angel" and "The Good Doctor," among others. Here she has her finest role, and along with costar Aldredge is bound again to be a Tony nominee.
Under Craig Anderson, who staged the original Off-Broadway production of his Hudson Guild Theater, the direction is beautifully shaded and resourceful, using comic visual inventions and, above all, commanding that quiet so vital to a play which is more than a superficial comedy. He has respected play and players with deft control.
"On Golden Pond" should give heart ot actors who think about writing plays. As an actor, Thompson seems keenly aware of how to write dialogue with concise phrases and sentences, precision in meaning and, above all, skill in suggesting thoughts without exactly stating them.
The three leads are adept at these lines, and so are Ronn Carroll, as Charlie the mailman who has let life drift by; Stan Lachow, as the colifornia dentist whose verbiage amuses Norman; and Mark Bendo, as the 13-year-old with a vocabulary which doesn't shock, but merely quickens his grandfather-to-be. Bendo is especially winning in this well-observed role.
Those weary of gloom, downbeat plays and self-pitying characters will take heart from this healthy, affirmation of life. It speaks well for his future that this 28-year-old playwright has perceived growing old not as a sad matter, but as merely a fact of the whole life. Norman and Ethel have lived, and as she says: "Time passes by, Chelsea. I suggest you get with it."