In the over three decades since On Golden Pond won the Drama Desk Award as Outstanding New Play of 1979, Ernest Thompson’s multigenerational comedy hasn’t lost an iota of its humor or charm, as made clear by its latest revival at Glendale Centre Theatre.

 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 Los Angeles 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 movie memories to people who may well never have seen it live on stage—all the more reason to catch GCT’s mostly excellent 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 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.

The Glendale Centre Theatre revival stars Andrew Prine and Salome Jens, stage and screen vets whose illustrious careers date back to the 1950s and who are still working actors over fifty years later, and has been directed with verve and an awareness of the demands of theater in the round by acting teacher extraordinaire Gloria Gifford.

 At seventy-six, Prine is still handsome, charming, and sharp as a tack in a part which has him onstage virtually throughout and responsible for nearly every punch line in Thompson’s script. To say that Prine’s comedic timing is impeccable and that he doesn’t miss a laugh would be an understatement. The ’50s/’60s heartthrob’s performance recalls Henry Fonda’s (hardly a bad thing since the part of Norman won Fonda the Oscar), but is still very much Prine’s own, an irascible but lovable “old poop” who has the audience in the palm of his hand from his first entrance to his final exit.

Supporting performances are all-around terrific, from dynamic Chelsea alternate Varda Appleton, who captures all of the character’s rage and longing and filial love, to charismatic Blake Boyd as a particularly hunky, likeable Bill Ray, to peppy Adam Simon Krist, the picture of thirteen-year-old spunk and bravado and the best possible grandson old Norman could possibly have.

The weak(ish) link is Jens, almost but still not quite on top of her lines, something which proves more problematic here than it might in another play, primarily because Thompson’s script casts Ethel as ten years younger than Norman and the faster moving, sharper, more vital of the two. Still, Jens infuses Ethel with warmth and depth and has chemistry with fellow Actors Studio member Prine that suggests a lifetime lived together.

As always, Angela Wood and Glendale Costumes have outfitted the cast to perfection, 1970s perfection this time. The uncredited set, lighting, and sound designs are all excellent, the upstairs library being a particularly nice touch, though it does give Prine and Jens quite a workout. Scene changes take longer than perhaps ought to be the case despite a well-choreographed cast and crew of prop-movers (perhaps too much attention has been paid to set decoration), but the 1940s swing music that accompanies them makes the time past more quickly. Actors appear to be amplified only when needed, e.g. when entering and exiting. Nate Milisavljevich is stage manager and set builder.

While not quite the all-around perfect production the Colony Theatre staged just a year ago and a ten-minute drive away, On Golden Pond at Glendale Centre Theatre nonetheless possesses ample charms of its own, and the particular pleasure of in-the-round seating which has audiences virtually sharing Norman and Ethel’s summer digs with them. If only for Prine’s memorable take on Norman Thayer, this On Golden Pond is well worth an afternoon or evening of your time.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
July 28, 2012
Photos: Tim Dietlein

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