By John Quinn
According to Ecclesiastes, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” This doleful observation, applied to the narrative arts, leads to predictability in some plays, as their “creators” employ archetypes of character and theme. Hence there is nothing new in Ernest Thompson’s 1979 play “On Golden Pond,” which closes this season of The Purple Rose Theatre Company. Yet if the themes are old – seeking the joys of living while in the shadow of mortality; healing the generational breach between parent and child – the story nonetheless rings true.
“On Golden Pond” is a play in five scenes, relating the events at a summer cabin on a Maine resort lake. The Thayers, Norman (John Peakes) and Ethel (Jan Radcliff), once again make the family pilgrimage to Golden Pond. Norman is a retired professor and inveterate crank. The character is the typical brittle crust shielding a gooey sweet center, but at age 80, he is morbidly aware of death. Ethel, his long-suffering wife, is by contrast relentlessly upbeat and ready to “seize the day.” What might have been a rather humdrum summer of books and board games is shaken by a visit from their estranged daughter, Chelsea (Rhiannon Ragland), who has in tow her new boyfriend, Bill (Tom Whalen) and his son Bill, Jr. (played by Ian Bejster or Milo Tucker-Meyer, depending on the performance).
Chelsea and Bill are going to Europe and hope the folks will care for Billy while they’re away. Norman resists, but is won over by the kid’s infectious youth. His change of attitude allows Chelsea to see her father in a different light, and reconciliation begins. If this all sounds all according to formula – it is.
Rhiannon Ragland has the thankless task of finding motivations in a superficially written character. She succeeds in bringing some balance to Chelsea’s repetitive rants. John Peakes, founding director of Lansing’s BoarsHead Theater, has the look and the voice to pull off playing an 80-year-old, and the character has some of the best bon mots of the play. As written, though, Norman is too avuncular a curmudgeon to need much change of heart when inspired by a 13-year-old. (On a related note: After Aug. 5, Richard Henzel will finish the run in the role of Norman.) Radcliff’s impish reading makes for an endearing Ethel, even though she is much, MUCH younger than the character she portrays. A lady never tells; a theater critic never speculates.
The actors who make the best of the hands they are dealt are Whalen and David Daoust, who plays Charlie Martin, the lake’s mailman. Although perturbed by bugs and bears, Bill sees through Norman’s beastly behavior immediately and is man enough to beard the old goat. Whalen’s underplayed turn is just right. Also just right is Charlie, the simple soul who might have married Chelsea. Considering the character is just here for his colorful “Down East” accent and as a motivation for reminiscing, Daoust finds unexpected depth in Charlie.
Patrons who enjoy the Purple Rose’s high quality design and technical work will not be disappointed by the realistic scenic design by Bartley H. Bauer; who, by using the depth of the stage as a tool, manages to bring the great outdoors inside. Reid G. Johnson plays with mood and pattern in his complimentary lighting design.
Purple Rose Theatre Company resident artist Michelle Mountain directs “On Golden Pond.” All in all, director and cast cope well with a somewhat problematic script. If a healthy dose of life, love and nostalgia is your antidote to the long, hot summer, sit back with a simple dose of “On Golden Pond.”
‘On Golden Pond’
The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday-Sunday through Sep. 1. 133 minutes. $17.50-40. 734-433-7673. http://www.purplerosetheatre.org