'On Golden Pond' hits a sweet spot with its nostalgic look at love and family
Insight Theatre Company continues its inaugural season at the .Zack arts incubator with a stirring, effective production of On Golden Pond that celebrates love during the twilight years of life as well as the talents of long-time St. Louis favorites Joneal Joplin and Susie Wall. The lovely, languid show takes a kind look at a stubborn and resolute man and his endearing and enduring wife, and is filled with reconciliation and reflection.
In addition to strong performances by Wall and Joplin, Michael Pierce is surprisingly believable as fifteen-year-old Billy Ray, junior, quickly moving back and forth between eager kid to device-absorbed teen. Jenny Ryan and Eric Dean White are an engaging Chelsea and Bill Ray. Ryan goes toe-to-toe with Joplin in one of the show's most emotionally satisfying scenes. It's immediately clear that Chelsea has spent a good deal of time and energy trying to please her father, though I would have liked more from the script here. White is in clearly on-edge as a west coast city boy well out of his comfort zone, and his worries about bear attacks are quite humorous, particularly when punctuated by White's wide-eyed, nervous expressions. Kurt Knoedelseder rounds out the cast as the amiable Charlie. He's a plain spoken, down-to-earth fellow, even when wearing his lingering affection for Ryan's Chelsea on his sleeve.
The play, based on the popular movie of the same title, introduces audiences to Norman and Ethel Thayer, an aging couple whose affection has clearly deepened over the years, despite the trials and tests of life. Though the two occasionally bicker, even those moments are steeped in affection and good humor, leading to the overall impression that this couple has lived a truly charmed life. The show opens in late spring, as Norman and Ethel are opening up their summer home, and the couple's conversation flits between old times and neighbors to this summer's plans and the hope that daughter Chelsea will visit.
Norman's 80th birthday is approaching, much to his chagrin, and he's dealing with a problematic heart, but both he and Ethel share a zest for life that spills enthusiastically forth. Charlie the mailman stops by frequently and Chelsea does visit, bringing her new boyfriend and his son with her and adding another layer of warmth to the story. Norman's prickly side emerges as soon as Chelsea arrives and her boyfriend is on the receiving end of his inquisition, though he's clearly been prepped for the encounter. Having longed for a grandchild, Norman and Ethel are pleased as punch to welcome his son Billy into the family, so much so that the young man stays with them while Bill and Chelsea head to Europe for a getaway of their own. The scenes with Norman, Ethel and the boy, filled with mischief and a renewed sense of purpose for the aging couple, are the most satisfying of the show.
On Golden Pond ambles along at a measured steady pace, spanning a summer brimming over with the realities of aging, illness, adapting to change, and forgiveness. The joyful moments and memories are emphasized and the family's troubles, particularly the strain between Norman and Chelsea, are resolved without ever really unpacking the reasons that led to the tension. There's an almost too sweet sense of perfection to the nostalgic story and much of the dialogue feels emotionally contrived, yet director Trish Brown and the capable cast keep the show moving and the characters well motivated.
Matt Stuckel's set and technical design, which features a gigantic picture window that looks out on the pond as well as the frequent call of the loons, creates a perfectly rustic and homey setting for the story. Robin Weatherall provides the accompanying sound design and Geordy Van Es the lighting design, both of which complement the cabin setting, and the use of video in the window, rather than a static image, is an effective touch. We see time of day reflected in the glints of sun or moonlight hitting the water as well as watching the pelting rain.
Insight Theatre's production of On Golden Pond, running through July 23, 2017, is a sweetly reflective ode to the life Ethel and Norman Thayer built together. Though I would like more revelation from the story, the show is filled with warmth, redemption and compelling performances that will likely leave audiences feeling chipper and perhaps a little less leery of their own aging.