On Golden Pond: A Charming Delight!
Love, loss, the past, and the future all collide in Bay City Player's penultimate Season 100 show, On Golden Pond. A pitch-perfect intimate cast, strong-handed direction, beautiful tech and stage design, and a smartly funny, unexpectedly touching script make for a fantastic evening of theatre.
Crotchety retiree Norman Thayer (Leeds Bird) and his gracious wife Ethel (Margaret Bird) are returning to their summer home on Golden Pond, Maine. Ethel is looking forward to yet another relaxing summer picking berries, watching loons, and playing Parcheesi - Norman, however, will be turning 80 this summer and is preoccupied (albeit humorously) with dying. Things are upset even more when their adult daughter Chelsea (Kristie Moe) visits with her new boyfriend Bill (Todd Little) and his 13 year old son Billy (Gabe Thompson). After leaving Billy behind to bond with Norman, Chelsea returns, attempting to repair her strained relationship with her father before it's too late. Rounding out the cast are Ed Borus as chuckling mailman Charlie and Cheri M. Garrett as a telephone operator whose patience is fading fast.
Borus and Garrett do a lovely job with their respective roles, bringing out regional accents and mannerisms that bring their characters to life. Todd Little has a very funny scene as a quintessential "70's guy" dentist discussing sexual mores and wild bears with Norman. Thompson, who plays 13-year-old Billy, brings an interesting innocence to his role. His cursing and "cruising for chicks" comes off as charming and natural rather than bratty. Moe as Chelsea has perhaps the most difficult role, being given a lot of character development in just a few scenes and little buildup. Her relationship with her father Norman is the only real conflict in the show (besides Norman's conflict with time), and a lot hinges on it.
Part of the difficulty in developing this relationship comes from the charisma and charm of the leads, real-life married couple Margaret and Leeds Bird. Margaret as Ethel Thayer hits all the right notes. She is an eternal optimist, gracious, social and kind - the perfect foil to her melancholy and irascible husband. Leeds does his best to steal every scene he is in - he is an amazing example of inhabiting a character completely. He delivers Norman's dry humor with perfect timing, completely owns the stage every moment he is on it, and captivates the audience from the first moment he walks on stage and looks around his shuttered-up summer home. Watching the two of them banter, bicker, and comfort each other is absolutely the highlight of what is a very strong show, and the emotional resonance of their loving relationship during the later years of life didn't leave a dry eye in the house.
The problem is, the two of them are so delightful it's hard to see why Chelsea would be estranged from them. The script doesn't give a lot of background, and while Norman is occasionally sharp (specifically making some off-color racial comments and mocking Chelsea's weight), we don't really get a big moment or example of why he was such a horrible father. The climax of the show, as a result, is a little out of left field - emotions ramp up a little too quickly and then resolve a little too easily. There were also some noticeable line issues. Most scenes are just a conversation between two people, and as a result some scenes or segues were a little confusing and didn't have a natural rhythm to them.
Director Dr. Jeff List has done a wonderful job with his actors. It's clear that they understand their story well and have fully developed characters (even the smaller roles). Blocking is kept interesting and makes good use of the stage. Lovely touches throughout the show demonstrate the possibilities of a director who has strong vision and knows how to translate that to stage.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the beautiful set designed by Tyler Leonard and dressed by Cathy and Dale Gibboney and Katy Hamilton. The feature fireplace immediately caught the eye, but there were so many little details in every corner of the set that it very much felt like a full and fleshed out home. What might have been a traditional full set was instead subverted by hanging windows and pictures instead of mounting them on a flat, making everything a nice blend of modern and traditional. This was further enhanced by a lovely warm light design by David Newsham, including a nice water effect for nighttime transitions. Overall this is one of the most beautiful sets I have ever seen, and it was apparent that everyone involved went above and beyond.
Costumes by Katie Hamilton and Yolandie Lohrmann and hair by Randi Dalton were a little odd. Norman and Ethel always looked perfect, but some of the outfits for the younger characters were disjointed and pulled from a hodgepodge of late 20th century looks. Dr. List made a choice to keep this show in the past, but it wasn't quite clear what that past was (I'm assuming late 70's since that is when the play was written.) I think more could have been done to emphasize this time period. Also on that note, I know it was the 70's but a somewhat long racist tirade could probably have been cut down - it didn't add to the characters or plot and wasn't very funny as it continued.
Ultimately I thoroughly enjoyed On Golden Pond, and think it exemplifies the beauty of community theatre. Multiple generations of otherwise average professionals come together to tell a great story. Yes, as an emotional journey with a beginning, middle and end, On Golden Pond is a little thin. However, as an evening that has the audience constantly laughing through tears, it absolutely delivers.