— Norman does not want to go gentle into that good night.
In fact, Norman does want to be gentle about anything in On Golden Pond, the silver-haired drama that opened at Casa Mañana on Saturday. He has honed his defensive, grumpy-old-man act to irascible perfection and has no intention letting down his guard for a second.
Not even the love of his astonishingly tolerant wife, Ethel (Darrie Lawrence) seems to mellow Norman (Stephen Bradbury) much. He is even steadfastly chilly and distant in his rare encounters with their daughter, Chelsea (Leenya Rideout).
This play by Ernest Thompson, which is known to many for its 1981 film adaptation starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda, takes place in the couple’s Maine lake home, which is represented in this production with a stunning set design by Josh Smith. Norman and Ethel have arrived for their 48th summer of listening to the loons and swatting black flies, and await the arrival of Chelsea, who is coming to join in the celebration of Norman’s 80th birthday. She is bringing along a new boyfriend, Bill (Bob Hess) and his son, Billy (Samuel Moran). Poor Charlie the mailman (Bob Reed), the only permanent resident of Golden Pond we meet, is left to stay in the background and remember the halcyon summers he and Chelsea spent together as childhood sweethearts.
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When she arrives, Chelsea has a favor to ask of her parents. She wants to leave the 13-year-old, potty-mouthed Billy with her parents while she and Bill make a trip to Europe. This appears to be a terrible idea, because few people would want to leave any living thing in the care of the ever-snappish Norman. But the results of leaving the boy behind are not what anyone expects.
Most of the acting in this production, directed by Eric Woodall, is superior. All the players are highly experienced professionals. Bradbury, Lawrence and Rideout are hired guns from out of town who all have Broadway credentials. The rest of the cast are features some of the most talented actors from this area.
So everything about the staging of this show is of an exceptionally high quality, right down to the recorded incidental music composed and performed by Dylan Ezzie.
The writing is excellent and is sprinkled with bright bits of comic relief.
There are some warm and fuzzy moments in the relationships Norman has with Ethel and Billy. The only weak point may be Chelsea, who never draws us in as do the other characters. The extent to which the fault of that is the writer, the director or the actress is hard to say.
But, anyone familiar with this play or its film version knows that the cruel indifference of mortality hangs over the characters in this play like an ominous black cloud. Norman can see the Grim Reaper and he is no longer just a speck in the distance. Death should be in the cast list, because he never leaves the stage.
That casts a pall over the proceedings that cannot be ignored. Indeed, the whole idea is that the certainty of death should guide everything that happens in this show.
So this puts On Golden Pond in a special realm. It has always been lauded as a rare show that offers meaty parts for mature actors, and subject matter that might attract theater patrons of a certain age.
That is true. But, in so doing, it tends to alienate people who are not in that demographic.
So the measure here might be that if you already know and enjoy this script, you are likely to take pleasure in this production. But, if you are a newcomer to this story, be aware that you are going to be in for a great deal of grouchy and depressing content.
On Golden Pond
Through Nov. 15
3101 W. Lancaster Ave.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday