On Golden Pond

  • Date:
    April 1, 2005
    Review by:
    Polly Wittenberg

    Written by: Ernest Thompson
    Directed by: Leonard Foglia
    Cast: James Earl Jones (Norman Thayer), Leslie Uggams (Ethel Thayer), Linda Powell (Chelsea), Peter Francis James (Bill), Craig Bockhorn (Charlie) and Alexander Mitchell (Billy)
    Synopsis: Retired New England professor Norman Thayer and his spirited wife Ethel decide to spend one final summer at their family's lakeside cottage in Maine. En route to a European honeymoon, the couple's estranged daughter Chelsea arrives to leave behind her fianc�'s troubled young son. Colliding generations soon forge common ground, but when Chelsea returns to discover Norman playing the father she never had, years of bitter memories and resentment rise to the surface.

    What a joy it is to have James Earl Jones (he of the mellifluous voice and ubiquitous Verizon commercials) back where he belongs�on the Broadway stage. More than 15 years after his last appearance there, Jones has returned to the boards as Norman Thayer, Jr., an irascible retired professor, in Ernest Thompson�s funny and touching slice of elderly life, On Golden Pond. Nothing much happens as one watches Thayer and Ethel, his spirited wife and verbal sparring partner, spend their 48th consecutive summer at a bungalow in Maine. But it all seems so authentic�so true�that you are really glad to be there.

    It is also a joy to have Leslie Uggams of the beautiful singing voice as Ethel. Watch for the lovely moment when she recalls various camp songs from her childhood. The familial warmth and perfect comic timing that she and Jones generate in the revival now at the Cort Theater are easily worth the price of a ticket.

    To that you can add the winning contributions of Linda Powell as the Thayer�s LA-based daughter Chelsea, Craig Bockhorn as Charlie the local Down East mailman with an unrequited yen for Chelsea, Peter Francis James as her Gucci-shod fianc� Bill Ray, and Alexander Mitchell as Bill�s hip young son Billy.

    As minimally but prudently updated and directed by Leonard Foglia, Thompson�s 25-year-old play seems as fresh as a breeze on the lake, probably because the old verities about fishing, city boys, dentists, pre-marital sex, the Red Sox and the frailties of old age don�t change much. Notice the natural pace at which the scene where Ethel, Chelsea and Charlie share a cup of coffee unfolds. How refreshing to have characters who are talking rather than ranting.

    If I have any quibble with the production, it�s with the set by Ray Klausen, A fireplace here, a couple of doorways, a set of steps there; nothing joined together. All dominated by a mediocre depiction of the pond. Where all else seems so integrated, the fragmentation of the scenery is especially jarring.

    But don�t let the way the show looks keep you from enjoying the way Jones and company make you feel. Real pleasure all around.

    What the critics had to say.....

    BEN BRENTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES says �Mr. Jones positively vibrates with all the levels of the character he has drawn. That's something only a bona fide star of the stage can do. Such creatures are few these days. "On Golden Pond" provides a rare and welcome opportunity to catch one in peak form.�
    ROBERT DOMINGUEZ of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says �Jones' imposing stage presence reveals the thinness of the plot. Take away Norman's glib and caustic one-liners, and it's a simplistic, mawkish play that glosses over the father-daughter conflict at its core.�
    CLIVE BARNES of NEW YORK POST says " 'On Golden Pond' is not by any means a great play, but it's a damn good vehicle. This cast, led by the testily exultant Jones, use it as if they were trimphantly water-skiing over admittedly shallow waters."
    ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY "True, Norman is a cranky old coot, but we can tell that he has a soft center. And Jones plays him with such warmth and obvious pleasure that he becomes surrogate grandfather to each audience member."
    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "We must thank whomever or whatever coaxed this magnificent actor -James Earl Jones- back to the stage, where he began ."
    JACQUES LE SOURD of JOURNAL NEWS says "Welcome back, James Earl Jones. But couldn't you have come back in something of more significance than 'On Golden Pond'? "
    MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER says "Blessed by appealing performances from Jones and Uggams -- two marvelous veterans at their autumnal finest - there's no reason why this comfortable play shouldn't repeat its tried-and-true success."
    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of Associated Press says "Retired college professor Norman Thayer Jr., in the person of actor James Earl Jones, is the liveliest presence on stage."
    FRANK SCHECK Of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER says "While the artificiality of Ernest Thompson's play has only become more apparent with the passing years, "On Golden Pond" remains an effective if manipulative comedy/drama that clearly connects with audiences, especially those of a certain age."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers:
    New York Times
    New York Daily News
    New York Post
    USA Today
    Journal News
    Associated Press
    Hollywood Reporter