Hal Linden and Christina Pickles as Norman and Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond. What more needs to be said? With stars like these in a play as beloved as Ernest Thompson’s Drama Desk Award-winning Outstanding New Play of 1979, Burbank’s Colony Theatre could well have its biggest hit ever, and justifiably so. Linden and Pickles deliver award-caliber performances in a play that hasn’t lost an iota of its humor or charm, directed to pitch perfect perfection by Cameron Watson, and featuring a supporting cast every bit as wonderful as its two stars.

If ever there were a play that hardly needed synopsizing, it’s On Golden Pond, the reason being of course its 1981 film adaptation, second only that year to Raiders Of The Lost Ark in box office receipts. Is there anyone who hasn’t seen Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn as the long-married Thayers enjoying perhaps their last vacation On (Lake) Golden Pond, accompanied that summer by their daughter Chelsea’s thirteen-year-old stepson-to-be? It’s hard to imagine a Colony theatergoer who doesn’t remember Ethel’s “Don’t be such an old poop” or Norman’s “‘Ethel Thayer.’ It thounds like I’m lithping, doethn’t it?,” or teenage Billy’s revelation to Norman that when he and his friends “cruise chicks,” it’s cause they want to “suck face”?

Yes, indeed, On Golden Pond is the kind of play that brings back a flood of memories … to people who may well never have seen it live on stage—all the more reason to not to miss this superb revival.

Diehard movie fans may carp that some of the film’s most famous scenes are missing. You won’t witness Norman’s immediate terror as he finds himself lost in the woods, or Chelsea’s finally managing the back flip she could never do as a child, or the slap Ethel gives Chelsea when she feels her daughter has disparaged her father once too often. Missing too, for obvious reasons, are the film’s many scenes On Golden Pond itself, including those wonderful bonding moments between Norman and his surrogate grandson, fishing poles in hand.

Even in its original one-set form, however, On Golden Pond is about as sure-fire a crowd-pleaser as you’re ever likely to see on stage, and play-to-movie buffs will relish seeing how then thirty-year-old playwright Thompson was able to tell the same story he did in his screenplay without ever leaving the Thayer’s summer living room, and how he explored themes of mortality, marriage, and intergenerational miscommunication with equal depth and finesse.

It takes two powerhouse performers to stand up to memories of Fonda and Hepburn, but Linden and Pickles deliver the goods from delightful start to poignant finish, TV’s Barney Miller and (St. Elsewhere’s) Nurse Helen Rosenthal possessing the requisite charisma and virtuosity to make Norman and Ethel their own. That Linden and Pickles are the ages of the characters they play (and in one case several years older at that, though you’d never guess) adds to the production’s realism—and power. (The original Broadway stars Tom Aldridge and Frances Sternhagen were respectively 29 and 20 years younger than their roles back in 1979.) Not only are Linden and Pickles on top of their parts in a way actors half their age might fail to be, they make us feel almost as if we were discovering these iconic characters for the very first time, the two stars convincing us that this cranky old man and his long-suffering but adoring wife have truly been married for forty-eight years.

Supporting these two virtuosos are four of L.A.’s finest acting talents, beginning with the incandescent Monette Magrath as Chelsea, whose powerful scenes opposite Linden and Pickles reveal decades of a daughter’s built-up hurt and resentment. Brentwood School sophomore-to-be Nicholas Podany is, as they say, a find, bringing to the role of Billy a real-life teenager’s spontaneity, authenticity, and bravado. (It’s a shame the talented newcomer is given less to do than Doug McKeon was in the movie, because who wouldn’t want to spend more time with such a great kid?) As Chelsea’s fiancé Bill, Jonathan Stewart takes a part that might well come across a caricature in less skilled hands and makes the loquacious California dentist a real, sympathetic individual. Last but most definitely not least is Jerry Kernion’s brilliantly achieved featured turn as Charlie, Maine’s jolliest mailman, whom Kernion (so memorable a few years back in Rounding Third) gives a hilariously syncopated six-beat laugh that is only one of multiple reasons his work earns him a spontaneous round of applause on his first exit—and eager anticipation of his next entrance.

As for the sense of place so gorgeously rendered on film three decades ago, the Colony’s crackerjack design team come pretty darned close to matching it without a single exterior scene. Scenic designer John Iacovelli has created a living room set rich in the lived-in look the Thayers’ lakeside home would have had after half a century or more of use, with MacAndME’s marvelously detailed properties design and set dressing aiding immeasurably. (Only a 1990s-style cassette player seems out of place.) Lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg bathes the set in vivid summer hues, with distinctive patterns for each month and time of day, and a gorgeous approximation of the ripples of Golden Pond between scenes. Rebecca Kessin’s excellent sound design situates us smack dab in the middle of lake country, with its haunting loon calls, so integral to Thompson’s script. Ryan Shore’s original music has just the right “watercolored memories” feel to it. Terri A. Lewis costumes the cast in just-right late 1970s garb, with attention paid to each character’s age and personality traits. Alexander Berger is production stage manager.

On Golden Pond harkens back to the plays and productions that made the Colony’s reputation back in its 99-seat plan days, with the bonus of a considerably larger Equity budget. Older subscribers will find this particular Colony offering particularly up their alley, but anyone of any age will discover characters with whom to identify. Many are going to dub this production “Broadway caliber,” however since these days that might not be the compliment it once was, I’ll simply say that the Colony Theatre’s revival of On Golden Pond is Los Angeles theater at its very finest—and that is very fine indeed.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
July 30, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

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