By John Quinn
Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” enjoys high name recognition, due to the playwright’s 1981 film adaptation that won Academy Awards for Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. The film, frankly, is a tad morbid; the play is anything but. It’s a funny-sad, sentimental study of the deep emotional currents astir beneath the placid surface of a summer vacation. John Forlini and his troupe at The Box Theater in Mount Clemens are the latest storytellers to affirm that it’s never too late for reconciliation.
For 48 years, Norman and Ethel Thayer have summered at their resort cabin on a tranquil Maine lake. This year is different; Norman, approaching 80, is increasingly fixated on his inevitable demise. In addition, he’s experiencing memory loss that might herald dementia. Complications arise when their estranged daughter, Chelsea, arrives, accompanied by her new boyfriend, Bill and his son, Bill Junior. Bill and Chelsea are on their way to Europe and are relying on her parents to “babysit” the reluctant teen.
After some initial jockeying for position, the relationship between old man and young boy thaw. As Ethel quips, “We should have rented a 13-year-old years ago.” But what will be Chelsea’s reaction be when she finds Norman now has the “son” he’d wanted all along?
What makes “On Golden Pond” at The Box special is that Norman and Ethel Thayer are played by married couple Harry and Jane Burkey. Norman Thayer is a curmudgeon whose primary goal seems to be “getting one’s goat.” There are references to Chelsea’s boyfriends, who were afraid he’d eat them alive. In a telling exchange, Norman asks earnest, but dense Charlie, the Pond’s mailman (played by Casey Hibbert), “Why didn’t you marry Chelsea?”
“You wouldn’t let me,” Charlie replies. That’s one mean-spirited crank.
Harry Burkey, on the other hand, is so likeable he wins us over long before Norman’s time with Bill Jr. improves his outlook. Ethel has our affection from her first entrance on; her devotion to her husband “in sickness and in health” till death do them part is warming. Jane Burkey brings spirit to the role, and makes us believe Ethel’s wits are honed by years of dealing with a prickly husband.
Mandy Logsdon gets little help from the playwright in imagining Chelsea Thayer. The character is poorly written and is easy to dislike. Chelsea is a chip off the old block, obsessing about old wrongs and goading the people around her. Yet, according to the plot, we are to believe she is willing to bury the hatchet after a single father-daughter one-on-one. Logsdon succeeds in filling in the character, but we’re missing a lot of the egocentric self-pity lurking in the script.
Rounding out the cast are the Bills, senior and junior, played by Jason Brouwer and Logan Roberts. Brouwer is likeable in an underwritten role, and his moment with Harry Burkey, as Bill challenges Norman on his manipulative behavior, displays a nice balance. There is a lot of character implied in Billy Ray, Jr. He slumps. He’s moody. He used foul language in a bid for attention. In short, Billy’s a brat. Roberts doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, yet his scenes with both of the Burkeys are spot-on.
In the end “On Golden Pond” reminds us – Dylan Thomas notwithstanding – it really is all right to “go gentle into that good night.” Family means everything in “the dying of the light.”
‘On Golden Pond’
The Box Theater, 90 Macomb Place, Mount Clemens. Friday-Sunday through April 27, plus Thursday, April 18. 2 hours. $16-$18. 586-954-2677. http://www.theboxtheater.com