Ernest Thompson's "On Golden Pond" seems destined to pick up friends wherever it plays. Although Broadway took tepidly to the work, it has since gone on to become one of the most frequently produced American plays of the 1980s, not to mention a much noted movie pairing Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn for the first time.
Apparently, audiences see in this meandering, often sentimental account of the 48th summer that Ethel and Norman Thayer Jr. have spent on Golden Pond a comforting, if somewhat idealized, reflection of their own lives and values. The most recent local production, put together by the Barter Theatre for its winter season at George Mason University, is not much better than hasty summer stock, perhaps, but it will probably still be an audience pleaser.
Thompson's work celebrates the humble day-to-day texture of life, as most people lead it, which is to say uneventfully, if not uninterestingly. It has two grand characters, a husband and wife who are a virtual commercial for togetherness, and yet who are nonetheless original or self-reliant for that. If it recognizes that we are all mortal creatures -- Norman has his 80th birthday in the first act, and a few heart palpitations in the second -- it also says that we can pack in a lot of worthwhile living before the final gong, if we don't sit around feeling sorry for ourselves.
The Barter production, unfortunately, lets the playwright do most of the work. As Norman and Ethel Thayer, Harry Ellerbe and Patricia Place are a flagrant mismatch. He is a sweet enough codger -- indeed, he has a silly little whinny of a laugh that may remind you of Ed Wynn -- but he isn't intimidating for an instant. And Norman's great joy in his old age is terrorizing anyone foolish enough to let himself be terrorized.
Too young for her role by 20 years, Place plays his wife with a kind of simpering affection that overlooks Ethel's strong-mindedness and her sharp good sense. But what is most lacking is that instinctive knowledge of one's mate, born of a lifetime of familiarity. Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen brilliantly suggested that quiet awareness -- a kind of second sight, really -- when they created the play at the Kennedy Center. It is what ultimately thickens "On Golden Pond" and makes it more than just a sitcom in the Maine woods.
The acting strength of the Barter production resides mostly in the supporting cast. Cleo Holladay is properly acerbic as the daughter with a longstanding chip on her shoulder. As the boyfriend she brings home for a stay, Ross Bickell struggles amusingly to maintain his California cool in the crisp New England climate. And Travis Fine gives an appealing and unself-conscious performance as the juvenile who discovers an unexpected pal in Norman.
Fred Chappell's direction is mostly mundane, though. He glosses over some of the revelatory moments in the script and lets the accents wander unnaccountably from Maine to Georgia. Chappell's biggest mistake may be his desire to make "On Golden Pond" cute and lovable from beginning to end. Granted, Thompson's work is a joyful one, but there are some dark moments in his script and the Barter production unwisely plays them down.
But you can't have sunlight without shadows. If the hours are precious on Golden Pond, it's because time is slowly running out. Thompson's script is quite nice enough as it is. To make it even nicer is, in fact, to make it into something less.
ON GOLDEN POND. By Ernest Thompson. Directed by Fred Chappell; set, John C. Larrance; costumes, C. L. Hundley; lighting, Christopher H. Shaw; with Harry Ellerbe, Patricia Place, Phillip Locker, Cleo Holladay, Travis Fine, Ross Bickell. Produced by the Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, at George Mason University's Holbert L. Harris Theatre through Jan. 17.