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‘On Golden Pond’ Sails Along Strongly at Newport Theatre Arts Center

Gary Williams and Harriet Whitmyer in “On Golden Pond.” Photo credit to Sarah Whitwell

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

It didn’t take long for Ernest Thompson’s 1979 play “On Golden Pond” to be adapted for the big screen. Thompson himself revamped his script in 1981 and it was filmed in short order and released in December.

Yet, check out Newport Theatre Arts Center’s production of the original stage version, directed by James Rice. and you’ll quickly surmise that the moviemakers literally missed the boat.

At NTAC, “On Golden Pond” sails along, a slice of life that captures both the pain and the ineffable joy of the human condition. Rice and company realize what they have, and they’ve taken great care to preserve the play’s strengths and downplay any potential flaws.

In the hands of director Rice and his cast, the tone of Thompson’s tale stays on an even keel, with understated acting. The play’s humor isn’t allowed to descend into being nasty or mean and its more heartfelt moments are honest and real, without risk of descending into bathos.

In this respect, NTAC’s “On Golden Pond” is imminently more accessible, and therefore more successful, than the Hollywood version. This “Golden Pond” is less emotionally overwrought than the film, and that’s a blessing. Overall, though, it’s the sense of art reflecting life that makes this production work so well.

For 47 consecutive years, from May through September, Norman and Ethel Thayer (Gary Williams and Harriet Whitmyer) have lived at their summer home on the shores of Golden Pond in rural Maine.

Tevin C. Phelps, Harriet Whitmyer, Gary Williams. Photo credit to Sarah Whitwell

The play depicts their 48th such visit, which has a different vibe for the couple. Norman, about to turn 80, has become physically and mentally slower, leading Ethel to suspect this might be their final time at the idyllic retreat.

Fearing the worst, she invites daughter Chelsea (Briana Donze) to the cabin in the hopes that Chelsea and Norman will somehow resolve the spiky, thorny interactions that have always plagued them.

A professor emeritus of the University of Penn., Norman obviously has a keen mind and enjoys using it as a cudgel against anyone he deals with. He’s also irascible, prickly, and exceedingly blunt. “Ornery” is just one word heard in the play to describe him.

Ethel’s sunny disposition is seemingly at odds with her husband’s. Much of the fun in watching “On Golden Pond” is observing the interplay between even-tempered Ethel and cranky Norman.

Chelsea enjoys a naturally warm connection with mom Ethel and reveals the strain of her interactions with Norman – as Norman says, “I’m her father but not her dad.”

We can see that Norman has always been too much of an SOB to show his daughter even the most elemental kindness. As the gloves come off, Thompson has Norman deliver one of the play’s most brutal, and therefore memorable, lines: “I didn’t realize we were mad at each other. I just thought we didn’t like each other.”

Harriet Whitmyer and Gary Williams in “On Golden Pond.” Photo credit to Sarah Whitwell

Norman is especially caustic toward Chelsea’s new boyfriend, Bill (Lee Samuel Tanng). Playwright Thompson has Bill endure Norman’s verbal bullying only so long before standing up to him, foreshadowing Chelsea’s attempts to get her and Norman’s conflicts out in the open to force him to acknowledge them.

At NTAC, technical director Jim Huffman’s scenic design creates a sufficiently rustic yet cozy and comfy looking cabin that offers us a gorgeous view of the lake from the ceiling-to-floor porch windows. We see the lake surfaces, the shore, lush trees and greenery, bright sunlight and puffy clouds.

The cabin is realistically furnished with modest furniture, books, a clock and various nick-nacks, and Joshua Serrano’s lighting goes from the bright sunlight of daytime to the deep blues of twilight.

Rice’s cast – notably Williams and Whitmyer – bring NTAC’s staging its share of appealing warmth. The way Williams’s voice bobs up and down defines much of Norman’s personality. More crucially, even as Norman admits his increasing senility, Williams keeps the brakes on overdoing the character’s emotions.

Norman could be exceedingly caustic, but not here, as Williams tempers Norman’s dour persona with a restrained, natural delivery. By the play’s end, the character is more at ease with those around him and therefore more recognizably human.

Whitmyer, by the same token, avoids readings we’d recognize as oversentimental. Just as thankfully, the duo don’t trot out Fonda and Katharine Hepburn personas in attempts to re-create the film version.

Harriet Whitmyer, Lee Samuel Tanng, Briana Donze. Photo credit to Sarah Whitwell

Throughout NTAC’s staging, Donze’s Chelsea maintains a brittle façade of good cheer even in the face of dealing with the crusty Norman’s withering remarks. That nonchalant demeanor ultimately cracks as Chelsea releases pent-up bitterness over her father’s making her feel “like a little fat girl.”

Even while well-educated and well-spoken, Tanng’s Bill is a bit decorous, even nerdy, and alongside Williams’s blunt, confrontational smart-mouth, he seems even more civil. Ethan Horner is endearingly ingenuous as Bill’s young son Billy, and Tevin C. Phelps is cheerful and easygoing as Charlie, the local postman who was Chelsea’s teen boyfriend and still possibly carries a torch for her.

Overall, Thompson knows these characters well and has taken the care to write credible dialogue for them. Whitmyer and Donze have notably affecting moments, and their scenes, and those where Norman develops a pleasing rapport with Horner’s Billy, will put a smile on your face.

At its core, this is a drama about family issues, connections and interactions. It’s also about mortality and the ways we deal with that imminent aspect of human existence.

“On Golden Pond” isn’t, by any means, the great American play, but as NTAC’s fine production shows us, it’s certainly a good one.

Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Through July 21. Running time: Two hours (including intermission). 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Tickets: $25. Ticket purchase / information: 949-631-0288,

The post ‘On Golden Pond’ Sails Along Strongly at Newport Theatre Arts Center appeared first on Newport Beach News.

Source: Newport Beach Independent

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