REVIEW: On Golden Pond (Lincoln Square Theatre)

Everything but the romance on this ‘Pond’

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Lincoln Square Theatre presents
 
On Golden Pond
 
by Ernest Thompson
directed by Kristina Schramm
at
Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through June 12th  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

OGPpress4There’s much to admire about Lincoln Square Theatre’s tranquil, spare, and subtle rendering of Ernest Thompson’s 1978 breakout play On Golden Pond. For one, the pace of the entire production furnishes this American classic with an atmosphere of profound country quiet and ease, which colors all the interactions between its characters with a gentility long forgotten, except by the most devoted rural inhabitants.  Secondly, subtle changes in casting create a more humanizing tale of love and care between generations than one witnesses either in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie, with Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, or the 2001 live television broadcast, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Director Kristina Schramm’s direction seems determined to provide the audience with quiet emotional moments that run deep, like the soothing waters of Golden Pond itself.

Sadly, critically, what goes missing is the chemistry between its principle characters, Norman (Mark Shallow) and Ethel (Marie Goodkin) Thayer. On Golden Pond’s bedrock foundation is the life-long romance between these two contrary personalities. Norman is witty, morbid, irascible, and mischievous; Ethel is positive, energetic and outgoing–utterly stalwart in her love for Norman and embattled in her attempts to maintain his relationship between him and their daughter, Chelsea (Laura MacGregor). But, unfortunately, in Shallow and Goodkin’s hands, so much goes into expressing the differences between this rugged pair, the vital connections that keep them together almost vanish into airy nothingness.

That is a terrible misstep. For his part, Shallow shows adept grace in bringing out Norman’s most vulnerable moments. Whether in coming to terms with his progressively deteriorating memory in front of Ethel or possibly facing his last moments on earth, Shallow gives us a Norman who won’t make much ado about going into that good night. Nevertheless, he brings us to profound emotional depths with the tentativeness of Norman’s existence. Goodkin, as Ethel, could do more to bring out the nuances of living and loving a difficult creature like Norman. Her greater strength seems to be establishing Ethel’s strong emotional bonds with Chelsea or soothing the feelings of Charlie (Robert Dean), Golden Pond’s local mailman, who still carries a torch for her daughter.

OGPpress2Casting Laura MacGregor as a plump and successful Chelsea is a delightful touch—particularly when more famous productions of this play have typically chosen slender actresses for this role. Norman’s “little fat girl” is usually depicted as a woman redeemed by diets and/or exercise; but MacGregor’s Chelsea is as ample as she is—still angered by Norman’s frozen judgments of her, but capable of having love in her life all the same. MacGregor’s Chelsea is wry and self-defeating; sure of herself away from Norman, but still unsteady under his gaze. Chelsea’s new beau, Bill (Jeff Brown), is affable, direct, and credible in his ability to handle Norman’s mind games.

But perhaps the nicest touch of all is the choice of Charlie Bazzell for the role of Billy—Bill’s son by a former marriage. Other productions project Billy as a troubled kid, in need of Ethel and Norman’s redeeming care while Bill and Chelsea go off to Europe for the summer. But, thankfully, Bazzell’s Billy is just a kid being himself–without being any threat to anyone—someone with whom Norman really can have one (last?) Tom Sawyer summer. I don’t know if that makes this On Golden Pond more Norman Rockwell for most audiences—I only know that it feels much more like my own childhood growing up in rural Montana.

Much about Lincoln Square’s production is soft, sweet, and gently humanizing. If only the romance between Ethel and Norman were there, flickering with wit, beset by the scary challenges of aging—but enduring and irreproachable. The last essential scene between Ethel and Norman is genuinely effective and moving. It’s not inconceivable that this crucial element could develop and expand in the course of the run. That would not just be icing on the cake–that would be the cake that could hold everything other sweet and salty thing in it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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