Life can be beautiful On Golden Pond is the message playwright Ernest Thompson intended for his audience to capture from scene one. And if you look close enough, you can also find something or someone you can relate to in this story about ordinary people trying to find their path in life’s journey, with no other means of entertainment but the act of conversation.
When Thompson wrote this play, he didn’t have to go far to get in inspired. While growing up, he and his family summered at a lakefront cabin in Maine. That special place was the setting for “On Golden Pond,” his most popular play, which premiered on Broadway in 1979. The play was later adapted to film and was released in 1981, starring legendary Hollywood icon Henry Fonda, who gave one of the best performances of his distinguished career, alongside Katherine Hepburn, his daughter Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman.
Since then, “On Golden Pond” has been seen in more than 40 countries, and performed in some 30 languages. Most recently, this classical play opened at Palm Beach Dramaworks on February 2 and will continue through Feb 25.
In this story, we find Norman [John Felix] and Ethel [Pat Bowie] Thayer returning to their beloved cottage for their 48th summer. Insinuations of mortality are in the air, as are a suggestion of senility and a growing sense of urgency for Norman, who’s nearing his eightieth birthday and deep down longs to make peace with his long-estranged daughter, Chelsea [Karen Stephens]. When she arrives with her fiancé, Bill Ray [Jim Ballard]—a dentist from California who’s dressed to part in pink pants with a matching colorful blazer—along with his teenage son, Billy [Casey Butler], Norman’s consistently crabby mood suddenly takes a turn for the better.
The play starts with Norman and Ethel arriving at their summer home on Golden Pond, and in this very first scene we can see as they find joy in each other’s company as they watch a couple of loons paddling along together in blissful harmony. At first, the audience takes note of Felix and Bowie—a white man married to a black woman. But what seems like a misprint in the script, was actually a direct order from Palm Beach Dramaworks’ artistic director Bill Hayes to the director of the play, Paul Stancato, to “go color blind with it.”
Stancato recalls replying, “Yes, let’s do that!” Because for him, it’s about challenging our society to say, look at people for people. And that’s what this play does. In the first scenes you see a white man married to a black woman, but as the play continues, you only see Norman and Ethel.
“I know that the movie was done with an all-white cast, and that recently the play was done with James Earl Jones with an all-black cast, but it deals with the same things that are so relatable no matter the color of your skin,” explains Stancato. “It doesn’t change the dynamic. It doesn’t matter whether the Thayers are white or black; they’re still dealing with the same issues.”
One of the most appealing things about Felix and Bowie’s performance is the way they respond to each other—invigorating their roles as husband and wife, and making them so relatable. In the first scene of Act I, Ethel rushes to Norman and says, “Come here, Norman. Hurry Up. The Loons! The Loons! They’re welcoming us back.”
It is this tender interaction between the two main characters of “On Golden Pond” that makes us focus on Norman and Ethel—a loving couple in their golden years of life. They’re comfortable with one another, while still trying to navigate new transitions in life, including Norman’s memory loss and the fact that his career as an English professor and orator is over. He has lost his status quo and so his dignity is slipping. And with that dignity comes a feeling of identity loss, and an uncommon obsession with death. But perhaps not so uncommon, as this preoccupation is common amongst people in their twilight years.
Norman’s demeanor is reflected in his language. He is very sharp and a little prickly. This is a man that everything in his life came second to his work, even his family. And within his family dynamic there’s his wife Ethel, his right hand always and forever, and his daughter, Chelsea, who just couldn’t live up to his expectations, because she wasn’t a boy—the boy he’d always wanted.
Bowie, a great comedienne who masters her lines even when they are common and frequent in daily family drama, like the term of endearment she uses to address Norman, “It’s me, you old poop!” leaves us to recall memories of our own family members, like our parents and grandparents and the nicknames they often use with one another that maybe at face value may seem odd, or even offensive to the rest of us.
Another humorous part that serves like a mirror into our own families, is the opportunity to see the interaction between Norman and Bill Ray—the dentist’s initial encounter with Chelsea’s father. In this scene, Bill suggests that he and Chelsea would like to sleep together in the same bedroom while staying at Golden Pond. After Norman makes Bill Ray sweat a bit over this “sex talk,” Bill Ray responds offensively while Norman is visibly amused by the conversation with his future son-in-law.
Bill Ray: You’re having a good time, aren’t you?
Bill Ray: Chelsea told me all about how you like to have a good time messing with people’s heads. She does too, sometimes. Me, sometimes I can get into it. Sometimes not. You know, it’s not imperative that you and I become friends. I thought it would be nice. I’m sure you’re a fascinating person, and I thought it would be fascinating to get to know you, but that’s obviously not an easy task. So you just go ahead and be as… poopy, to quote Chelsea, as you want to be, and I’ll be as nice and as civil as I can be. But I think there’s one thing you should know while you’re jerking me around and making me feel like an asshole. I know precisely what you’re up to. And I’ll take just so much of it. Now what is the bottom line on this illicit sleeping together question?
Norman: Very good. That was a good speech. Bottom line, huh? You’re a bottom line man? All right, here’s the bottom line… O-kay.
Bill Ray: Huh?
Norman: You seem like a nice man. A bit verbose, but nice…
Bill Ray: Thank you.
Norman: …and you’re right about me. I am fascinating.
Bill Ray: I’m sure you are.
Norman: But let’s get back to the sex thing… anything you want to know, just ask me. Go ahead.
Bill Ray: No, no… I just, uh, wanted to clear that up. Chelsea and I can sleep together.
Norman: Sure, please do.
[pauses, resumes reading]
Norman: Just don’t let Ethel catch you.
Charlie Martin, the Mailman [Paul Tei] brings a refreshing twist into this drama. He plays Chelsea’s childhood boyfriend, who was never quite good enough for Chelsea, and definitely not for Norman. Charlie portrays that small town character who’s stuck in a town with no way out, least of all from his memories of Chelsea.
About Billy, the teenage son of Bill Ray and Chelsea’s soon-to-be stepson, who gets to stay with Norman and Ethel for a month at Golden Pond, one can step back and see this character for what he really is, as the playwright’s mechanical device to transform Norman into a loving “Daddy.”
At the end of Act II, we see that Norman and Chelsea finally find common ground and reunite. But what’s most interesting is Norman and Ethel’s reversal of roles: in the beginning of the story, Norman is obsessed with death, while Ethel tries to avoid the subject entirely. In the end, Norman realizes that life doesn’t have to be over at 80, and Ethel’s close call with her husband’s death pushes her to think that life is fragile, just like Norman.
”On Golden Pond” is a wonderful comedy drama that offers great performances that portray the funny and sad sides of life: older parents dealing with each other; children dealing with their aging parents, old family resentments, and new relationships; and a new generation confronting an older generation face to face. I love these lines between Norman and Billy Ray in Act I:
Billy Ray: So, I heard you turned 80 today.
Norman: Is that what you heard?
Billy Ray: Yeah. Man, that’s really old.
Norman: You should meet my father.
Billy Ray: Your father’s still alive?
Norman: No, but you should meet him.
That’s life. And it’s beautiful on Golden Pond.