Monday, April 20, 2015

Shadows over paradise: IRT's 'On Golden Pond' is a comedy about loss held off

Few serious family comedies of the past 40 years have held the stage as successfully as "On Golden Pond." Indiana Repertory Theatre's season-ending production of the Ernest Thompson play supports its durability, thanks to a unity of vision and a stylistic restraint that avoids underlining the story's sentimentality.

Those of us who have never accumulated a half-century of memories about an idyllic summer home are ready to experience them vicariously as soon as we lay eyes on Robert M. Koharchik's set — sturdy, rustic, lived-in and backgrounded by a glimmering vista of sky and water. Whatever may threaten Norman and Ethel Thayer's continued happiness in their lakeside Maine home we are rooting for them to keep at bay.

Norman Thayer ignores Ethel's steady enthusiasm.
Trouble is, one of those threats is Norman's attitude as the couple return to their spacious, memento-rich cabin for another summer. The shuffling patriarch's mind is bent on his demise — an old preoccupation, according to Ethel. As his 80th birthday approaches, however, his vitality is sapped by enough health worries to justify this tendency. His caustic humor serves as the perfect accompaniment to a twilight he can't possibly welcome (who does?).

The role has always struck me as problematic. The character gets lots of laughs, some of them guilty pleasures, as you could tell by a few "oohs" from Sunday evening's audience. He's not evil, but he's fairly unlikable, and an actor has to do more than bask in the wisecracks to make the second-act pathos come through.

Norman is resolutely loved by his wife, despite her recurring exasperation, but seems bereft of other social connections. Ethel is an optimist forever caught up in the romance of long summers in the domesticated wild — the language of the loons, berry-picking adventures, delight in wildflowers. Norman has shed some of his old pleasures, or is only ready to indulge in them haphazardly. He is lucky to have her, but the audience is steadily invited to believe he doesn't deserve the luck.

An actor playing the old man has to respond to subtle indications that Norman isn't as irredeemable as he seems. With a history of being hard on the couple's only child, Chelsea, and his somewhat disdainful treatment of her persistent local suitor, the mail carrier Charlie Martin, Norman is secretly fighting to stave off death and find new reasons for living. In Robert Elliott's performance, his persistence is believable and even becomes worth cheering for.

Darrie Lawrence's portrayal of Ethel was capable of eliciting the audience's sympathy with her
Norman (Robert Elliott) sizes up Bill Ray (Ryan Artzberger).
reclamation project. Also crucial to it is a surprise juvenile house guest, Billy, the son of Chelsea's latest beau, a Los Angeles dentist named Bill Ray. Ryan Artzberger's performance was a nuanced study in awkwardness exacerbated by Norman's goading, turning into a display of grit that impresses his tormentor. Winningly played by Griffin Grider (who could have used a bit more California sass, however), Billy appeals to Norman's desire for new experiences he can believe in and lend some direction to. The teen is a willing pupil, yielding to the charm of the place and his crusty mentor while the dentist-boyfriend and Chelsea head off to Europe.

Working her way toward an equilibrium that has eluded her into middle age, Chelsea eventually steels herself to turn into Norman's loving daughter. Constance Macy's performance nicely modulated the strain imposed by Chelsea's return to Golden Pond, encountering all the old difficulties with her father and tempted to think nothing can change.

Charlie Martin reminisces with Chelsea and Ethel.
Yet change is always possible despite the odds. The production, under the direction of Janet Allen, creates an exciting tension as it seems to whisper "too late, too late." But there is something in Elliott's Norman Thayer that echoes the final lines of Randall Jarrell's poem "The Woman at the Washington Zoo." Lonelier than Norman, she silently implores the animals she sees around her for transformation — just as Norman extends a mute appeal to the Golden Pond loons and the other flora and fauna that so excite his wife: "You know what I was,/ You see what I am: change me, change me!"

Punctuating his memories with an infectious chuckle perfectly rendered in Charlie Clark's buoyant performance, the Golden Pond mailman suggests another lesson. If you can mark a few occasions in your life when you felt really special to people— as Charlie did decades ago whenever he brought the day's mail to the girls' camp down the pond — you've got the resources you need to change for the better, or simply accept the way things have turned out. IRT's "On Golden Pond" packs enough wisdom along with its fun to fill any summer you may have in mind, no matter where you spend it.

[production photos by Zach Rosing]