It is only fitting that James Earl Jones should make his return to the theater in this city of outsize events. Jones is one all by himself. At 73, his gait may be a bit heavier, his waist thicker, but otherwise, age has done little to erode his arsenal; he still ignites on a stage like something doused in kerosene.
You can't take your eyes off him when he's up there, growling and muttering. Think of the most intimidating teacher you ever had, and now imagine him or her with a bigger, angrier older brother. That's the kind of weight and space Jones claims for himself onstage, and it's difficult to come up with the name of another American actor who could match it.
Oh, yes, that reminds me: When you see Jones these days, there is a play happening all around him -- can't recall the title at the moment, but it will come to me. "On Golden Pond," that's it. Truth to tell, the play's a trifle; nothing of much import occurs during the two hours and 20 minutes it consumes each evening in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. The story is so wan it all but crumbles like a dietetic wafer: A pair of retirees on a lake in Maine are visited by their estranged daughter and her spirited, 13-year-old stepson-to-be.
And? Well, no "and," really. The daughter ends her rebellion in the mildest way, the old couple takes grandly to the kid, and the sometime-turbulent beat goes on in the idyllic house by the loon-filled lake. Yes, sounds like time for a long nap in the hammock. But here's the thing that should wake you up: It's a nifty star vehicle for Jones, who gets to spend the better part of the night exercising whatever mean bone he has in his body. He is a treat as the irascible Norman Thayer Jr., an English professor emeritus whose view of the world is that he's right and it's wrong.
Ernest Thompson's lethargic comedy had a lackluster run on Broadway in the late '70s, then found an audience in movie theaters, thanks to the 1981 film version starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. Its success may in part have been attributable to a real-life drama it mirrored, the on-screen pairing of Fonda dad and daughter, whose distant relationship off-screen had been fanzine fodder. In any event, the movie earned Oscars for Hepburn and the elder Fonda and remains noteworthy as the last film he ever made.
The only good reason to revive "On Golden Pond" is if an actor can be found who imbues the play with a significance it doesn't possess on its own. Once upon a time on Broadway, such arrangements were fairly commonplace; nobody much minded the dime-a-dozen quality of the melodramas and boulevard comedies if they featured a great star or two. Not only have the plays thinned out, but so have the ranks of actors who can carry them. It's a sad measure of the decline of the age of the Broadway star that this is Jones's first stage appearance in 16 years. His last was as Troy Maxson, the bullying patriarch of August Wilson's "Fences," a role that deservedly won him a Tony.
Jones's Norman is another memorable bully, although of a more sympathetic sort. Norman and Ethel (Leslie Uggams) come to Golden Pond each summer -- the lake is depicted by designer Ray Klausen in a mural-size landscape whose colors shift like those of a mood ring -- and now, in their dotage, there's talk of the end of such summers, of the beginning of forgetfulness and heart medication. With the arrival after a long absence of their daughter Chelsea (Linda Powell), who brings in tow boyfriend Bill (Peter Francis James) and his son Billy (Alexander Mitchell), the lake is restored to its rightful role as metaphor for the cycle of life -- the good life that Norman and Ethel have shared.
The wide Eisenhower proscenium is not ideal for "On Golden Pond." The director, Leonard Foglia, is sometimes compelled to plant the actors on opposite sides and have them shout across the vast expanse. (Some dialogue is lost when the actors direct their speeches upstage.) And the play itself is strangely plotted; the deepening of the bond of Norman and young Billy occurs offstage, and Chelsea's reconciliation with her father is as terse and casual as a chat with a salesclerk.
So the appeal here is all in the casting. Powell, James and Mitchell fit the bill nicely. Craig Bockhorn makes an amiable Charlie Martin, the mailman on the lake who has nursed a crush on Chelsea for decades, and Uggams has pulled off quite a feat, whipping up a believable Ethel in the space of a week. Jones's original co-star, Diahann Carroll, was forced to withdraw from the production late last month with a back injury. Uggams rode to a last-minute rescue, offering a winningly sunny turn as the indefatigable spouse.
Hers is a gracious performance; she's an unfussy straight woman for Jones, who is unleashed on the play like a fading holy terror. The line readings are all sharp, and Foglia and he have worked out some funny bits of business, such as the moment at which Norman unceremoniously dislodges Billy from a favorite reading chair. Best of all is Jones's delivery of Norman's dyspeptic retorts, an endless hailstorm of snipes and jabs that never seem to lose their zing.
Of course, everyone understands that Norman's offense is his last defense, an act of reassurance more than defiance, proof that his intellect still rages, his wit still pierces -- that he remains a potent force to reckon with. And with his virile study of a lion at sunset, the actor himself is proving the very same thing.
Frailty, thy name ain't Jones.
On Golden Pond, by Ernest Thompson. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian Nason; original music and sound, Dan Moses Schreier. Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 17 at Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600. Note: Because of a prior commitment, Leslie Uggams will not perform on Oct. 8 and 9.