Bucks County Playhouse sets new gold standard with ‘On Golden Pond’ production

On-Golden-PondBy John Dwyer

On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson premiered on Broadway in 1979. It is a marvelously simple play, with a large heart and honest writing about generational interaction and the pitfalls of growing old. Its popularity soared when it became a major motion picture in 1981 with Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda.

Bucks County Playhouse has been lucky enough to have snagged the real life married couple, the handsome Keir Dullea and the delicious Mia Dillon, to play Norman and Ethel Thayer. It is difficult to believe that time has passed so quickly that Dullea and Dillon are age appropriate for the part, and that realization of the passage of time, is also one of the themes of the play.

The Thayers have visited their home in Maine every summer for 48 years. When they arrive this particular summer, they see the house is in need of repair. Norman is almost 80 years old, and Ethel is 10 years his junior. Chelsea, their daughter, arrives to celebrate Norman’s birthday with her boyfriend Billy Ray and his son Billy Ray, Jr.

As the house is being repaired, attention is also needed in patching up the relationship between Chelsea and her father.   Norman Thayer has always been sharp-tongued and distant with his daughter, and now is becoming forgetful.

The play is presented in two acts: the first representing the initial months of summer — May, June and July — and the second act takes place in August and September. The cast of characters is similarly positioned with a teenager, middle-aged couple, and then Norman and Ethel.  The universal theme of the play revolves around each generation folding into the next, but not always easily.

The plot revolves around Norman Thayer (Dullea), a retired professor from the University of Pennsylvania, who has always had a fascination with death, according his wife Ethel. Only now, at his age, he fears he has good reason. Dullea has worked with Director Jonathan Silverstein before in 2010’s I Never Sang for My Father, an off-Broadway production with Marsha Mason. That play, which also was about aging and reconciling generations, did not have the humor of On Golden Pond. And Dullea and company do an excellent job in finding the laughs in the script.  The sardonic humor of Norman was especially evident in the Billy Ray and Norman scene, where Norman takes delight in making Chelsea’s special friend feel uncomfortable.

Keir Dullea as Norman Thayer

Keir Dullea as Norman Thayer

But there’s some grumbly dialogue best thrown away that Dullea instead overemphasized. There also is the issue of the relationship between Norman and Chelsea — the estrangement between father and daughter is not fully spelled out in the script, so the back story needs to be set up by the actors to create a plausible situation. Ethel claims that Norman is the sweetest man, but that is not the case if he simply doesn’t like his daughter for no apparent reason. There needs to be some regret for this disconnect by Norman that Dullea has yet to discover.

His relationship with Billy Ray, Jr. is fueled by his desire for reparation with his daughter. There are opportunities for the actor to explore that if only Norman could, for example, button Billy Ray’s jacket, just like he used to button Chelsea’s. There is connective emotional tissue between Norman’s seeming antipathy to his daughter and his desire to be with Billy Ray Jr. that bears more examination.

Mia Dillon is transcendent as Ethel Thayer. You forget Katherine Hepburn in the role, which is no small feat. Christa Scott- Read is touching as the emotionally distraught Chelsea. Todd Cerveris is delightful as mailman Charlie Martin, and has a natural New England everyday charm that is ingratiating. Don Noble is excellent as the dentist fiancée of Chelsea. And Cameron Clifford as Billy Ray, Jr. gives a fine performance as the 13 year old son of Chelsea’s soon-to-be-husband.

The creative team includes Steven C. Kemp (set design), Jennifer Paar (costume design), Gina Scherr (lighting design), and Obadiah Eaves (sound design and original music). The set was wonderful, with the exception of a shiny brass chandelier, which looked newly-purchased at Home Depot. It’s the right style — just not old enough looking.

This is a very touching play, and I hope it is well-attended.

We all need to examine our family relationships, and work on showing up and loving one another, so our golden years can truly be on golden pond.

On Golden Pond runs through Aug. 2. Tickets can be purchased online, or call the box office at (215) 862-2121.

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