Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond is sentimental on the surface: A husband and wife in the twilight of their years spend a summer at the family cabin on Golden Pond where they’ve been going for 38 years. Quiet moments of redemption and memorable characters have elevated this 1979 play (and the 1981 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda) to the status of an American classic. The underlying themes are timeless, even as the story itself sometimes seems outdated. (I’ll get to that later.)
This is the final Montana Repertory Theater production from artistic director Greg Johnson before he retires this spring. He’s always a strong director, but with On Golden Pond, his direction is seamless.
The play begins in May when Ethel and Norman Thayer arrive at their vacation home on Golden Pond, uncover the furniture, unpack their things and settle in for the summer. Norman, we find out quickly, is a cantankerous sort with a fixation on death (he’s about to turn 80) and Ethel, aware of his degrading health, tries to keep him from dark thoughts. Soon, their daughter Chelsea arrives with her new boyfriend, Bill, and Bill’s son, Billy. As soon as Chelsea greets her parents as “Mommy” and “Norman,” we know that there is some heavy father-daughter hurt that needs to be healed, but it’s going to take a while.
Suzy Hunt does a fantastic job of bringing Ethel to life. She evokes Lauren Bacall and has a similar rough-but-sweet take on Ethel to Hepburn. Amber Rose Mason nails the role of Chelsea, the grown daughter who returns to Golden Pond only to still find herself sucked into feeling like an unloved child. J.R. Robinson as Norman the curmudgeon really shines most during the scene when he’s left alone with his daughter’s boyfriend, Bill. Robinson doesn’t overdo his character’s capacity for cruelty: His casual delivery softens the venom of his words just enough to make him likeable.
In a play full of funny moments, this is one of the best, in large part because of Ryson Sparacino (a BFA actor from UM) as Bill whose intimidated overconfidence manifests in hilarious awkward silences, fidgety hands and exasperation thinly veiled by fake niceness. Hudson Therriault, another UM theater student, has put a lot of work into Charlie, the local mailman and Chelsea’s childhood boyfriend. He does the character’s down east folksiness and guffawing — to the point of caricature — but when he reins things in, he’s perfection. Therriault, Sparacino and Morgan Solonar, (who believably pulls off Billy, an angry but loveable 13-year-old boy), are going to be ones to watch in upcoming productions.
Also, the cabin on Golden Pond is a character in and of itself and Mike Fink’s set gives it life: stone chimney, wooden rafters and a backdrop of Golden Pond surrounded by pines and a misty Maine sky.
Lastly, as a note on how this play holds up: This is such an easy show for a Missoula audience to relate to because it’s about an older white, middle-class couple spending summers at a place a lot like, say, Flathead Lake. That viewpoint is fine, though it’s been done to death. I wonder how much more uncomfortable it is for middle-class white people now to hear Norman’s brief but cutting comments about “Jews” and “negroes.” His bigotry is realistic, but the play itself naturally lacks any context of conversations around white privilege. That’s not to say, don’t do On Golden Pond (though I can’t wait for the next wave of American classics with diverse perspectives), just that racism is no longer a sidebar or mild character flaw. And in some ways, that makes the play feel both out of touch and also ripe for conversation.
Montana Rep’s On Golden Pond continues at the Montana Theater in the PARTV Center Thu., Jan. 25–Sat., Jan. 27, and again Thu., Feb 1, and Sat., Feb. 3. 7:30 nightly with 2 PM matinee on Jan. 27.