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On Golden Pond

Your fascination with dying is beginning to frazzle my good humor. Don't you have anything else to think about? --- Ethel
Nothing quite as interesting. ---Norman
James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
Is there life in a play about a crusty old curmudgeon whose heart of gold is as carefully guarded as a fortress -- until a sassy thirteen-year-old boy comes into his life? There is, provided the irascibility cloaked sensitivity is delivered by James Earl Jones, the actor whose operatic basso voice you would recognize with your eyes closed.

It's hard to believe that the star of The Great White Hope is only five or six years younger than the eighty-year-old retired English professor he's portraying in On Golden Pond. But never mind his age, he's in fine form. Though the play that has brought him back to Broadway has usually relied on the chemistry between the cantankerous professor and his more cheerful wife to make its hokey mix of humor and heartstring pulling work, it is now very much Mr. Jones' show.

The fact that the current Norman and Ethel Thayer are African-Americans instead of a typical New Engand WASPs doesn't change anything about On Golden Pond's basic tears-beneath-laughter appeal -- its tendency to attract adjectives like heartfelt and bittersweet the way a walk in the woods outside their cozy cottage attracts mosquitoes. The well integrated mix of humor and sadness and the easy to identify with situations Ernest Thompson has crammed into his script still draw you in despite the manipulative and predictable plot developments (Daughter Chelsea's visit to kick up and resolve the never too clear father-daughter conflict; Chelsea's young stepson-to-be who serves as the bridge for her and Norman to heal their wounded relationship while there's still time).

Norman and Ethel's enduring marriage is a shout out for the strong family values that permeate such yesteryear fare. But while they still love each other and the New England home on Golden Pond where they've summered for almost half a century, the Thayers' are living their golden years in the shadow of the diminished physical and mental capacities. Norman's health problems have exacerbated his tendency to look at the glass as half empty -- and, in fact, as he sees it now the glass is almost completely drained.

Like all of us Norman and Ethel must deal with disappointments as well as the uncertainties of aging. Their major disappointment revolves around the absence of grandchildren from their only daughter who, besides not following in their solid marital footsteps, nurses a chip on her shoulder towards her father.

Mr. Jones is best with the ironic cover-up persona of the bear who's really a lovable pussycat. Though he doesn't always get to the core of the sensitive man who's haunted by the Grim Reaper and unable to connect with his daughter and say those three simple words "I love you, " he brings a relaxed and natural presence on stage. Which brings us to Leslie Uggams' Ethel.

Ms. Uggams is lovely to look at and also has a strong stage presence, but her performance here is somewhat too busy and actress-y, which does little for the Norman-Ethel chemistry. She seems to be trying too hard to be the upbeat, propper-upper -- the one for whom death is a still distant stranger and life continues to hold many little joys, especially in the pristine surroundings of Golden Pond. Actually, Kathryn Hepburn for whom this was a swan song movie performance, as it was for Henry Fonda, was even more self-consciously chirpy. (I didn't see Frances Sternhagen who originated the role on stage though I have posted my report on Steel Magnolias, another resurrected golden oldie in which she has a major role -- the review).

Of the subsidiary characters who round out the play's small crises and major redemptive events, Linda Powell (daughter of our former Secretary of State) as daughter Chelsea is the weakest link. She isn't a bad actress but she simply doesn't project the emotional range the part calls for. Peter Francis James and Alexander Mitchell fare better. James is likeable and believable as Chelsea's dentist boyfriend who's a city guy afraid of bears and bugs but strong enough to let Norman know he sees through his sarcasm. Mitchell is cute but not too cute as his son who bonds with the crusty old guy. Best of all is Craig Bockhorn. He manages to make the mailman with the Yankee twang who was Chelsea's first boyfriend into a real person rather than a sitcom stereotype.

Leonard Foglia moves the action forward briskly but his production fails to touch us deeply enough to bring tears to our eyes, not even in the most emotional scenes. The staging is, however, quite handsome. Scenic designer Ray Klausen has furnished the cottage with rustic charm and his backdrop of the lake and trees outside is beautifully lit by Brian Nason.

With Jones landing lots of funny laugh lines and things ending realistically but just cheery enough to justify that much used bittersweet adjective, I feel more curmudgeonly than Norman to question whether this revival was really necessary. Nice as it is to see Mr. Jones on stage again, wouldn't it be wonderful if he were appearing in the kind of new and provocative play that helped make him an actor whom audiences applaud before he utters a word.

On Golden Pond

Written by Ernest Thompson
Directed by Leonard Foglia.
Cast: James Earl Jones, Leslie Uggams, Linda Powell, Peter Francis James, Craig Bockhorn and Alexander Mitchell
Set Design: Ray Klausen
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Sound and Original Music: Dan Moses Schreier
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street (Broadway/ 6th Avenue) 212/239-6200
From 3/22/05; opening 4/07/05
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed & Sat @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 3:00PM (beginning 4/18/05 Tues @ 7:00PM) Tickets: $91.25, $66.25, $46.25
When James Earl Jones, the heart and soul of this production became ill with pneumonia, the rest of the show also failed -- resulting in a 6/26/05 closing date.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 3rd press preview
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