‘On Golden Pond” is sturdy enough to earn its continuing place in the American repertoire. While showing its vintage from a more amiable theatrical time, especially in the case of Ernest Thompson’s script, it provides actors with lots of verbal ammunition but seems mild and lacking in bite compared to 21st-century fare.
What endures in Thompson’s 1978 play is a strong portrait of a couple in their twilight years and two excellent subplots that give “On Golden Pond” needed variation and the chance to show that seemingly ingrained habits and attitudes can be modified to make life happier and richer.
“On Golden Pond” is essentially an actor’s piece filled with meaty roles that leave room for a lot of characterization and provide actors with an opportunity to shine.
It’s also actor-dependent. It needs the right cast to move the story along, give heft to Thompson’s lines, and create emotion from the transition the play’s main character, Norman Thayer, undergoes as he celebrates his 80th birthday.
Consistently and universally fine acting is the key to the Bristol Riverside Theater’s production of the play, which runs through Sunday, February 10.
Keith Baker’s curmudgeonly performance as Norman anchors Susan D. Atkinson’s even-keeled, comfortably lived-in production. He makes the most of some of Thompson’s best lines, such as responding to a compliment about how good he looks for an age he exaggerates beyond 80 by saying, “You should see my father,” or going into a witty litany of lisps as he talks about how marriage to him gave his wife the ungainly name of Ethel Thayer.
It’s Baker who keeps you glued to the stage even when he is matched in intensity by Eleanor Handley as the Thayers’ daughter, Chelsea, or forced to lower his guard and admit he enjoys the company and verbal sparring provided by Danny Vaccaro as Chelsea’s boyfriend, Bill.
Atkinson’s is an easygoing “On Golden Pond.” Drama is there via confrontation between Norman and Chelsea. Warmth emerges in scenes between Baker and Jeanne Lehman’s Ethel. There’s obvious rejuvenation as Norman keeps Bill’s 13-year-old son occupied with fishing and reading. With all of that, Atkinson doesn’t aim for highs and lows or emphasizing one scene over another.
Her approach is subtler. Her “On Golden Pond” plays like a slice of life, a look at a special summer on a Maine lakeside that is meant to promote peaceful idleness and welcome respite from a faster world.
This costs the production some immediate emotional pull but pays dividends when you realize how much at home you feel with the Thayers and how much you like them, all of which comes clear as dust covers are placed over the furniture in the closing scenes.
In a staging that evolves gently into more than a sum of its parts, Baker’s command and Handley’s shrewdly adult approach to a Chelsea trying to shed childhood complaints go a long way in providing the show with some depth and demonstrating that even families that seem ideal and functional have tough times. One telling moment comes when Norman blurts, “Of course I love you; we just don’t like each other very much,” and Handley withers as Chelsea before regaining the poise and strength to counter her father. Baker, meanwhile, has the keen instinct to look abashed after his wounding pronouncement.
The scene does not play big, but it plays naturally and is more devastating because faux pas such as Norman’s spill almost unconsciously, and certainly unwillingly, into the byplay between father and daughter.
The same goes for Baker’s scenes with Henry Parker, an able young actor whose character becomes a receptive student to all Norman, a college professor during his career, imparts about books, baseball, sailing, and fishing. The life-changing relationship between Norman and this inherited grandson is quickly apparent but is not announced boldly so much as seeming a lovely element in a significant summer.
The relationship between Ethel’s “old poop” and this outspoken boy just sort of happens. It becomes a routine of Golden Pond life, something that grows rather than suddenly being sprung on us.
Baker is as astute physically as he is with Thompson’s dialogue. While Norman can be halting at times, he develops a jaunty step when he is sneaking out to fish or showing something new to the boy.
Eleanor Handley is remarkable in being able to convey Chelsea’s seething just below the skin yet coping with her father in a quiet, direct way. Handley’s Chelsea doesn’t whine or use tears as a weapon. She is of braver mettle, making a decision to have it out with her father without yelling or begging for sympathy. By this method, we see more clearly how alike Chelsea and Norman are. Chelsea gets solace and friendship from her mother, but she shows more of Norman’s traits.
Jeanne Lehman doesn’t claim any huge moments as Ethel, but she inhabits Golden Pond with the ease and familiarity that comes from being in a summer home she’s enjoyed since childhood. Lehman is artless is conveying Ethel’s contentment, comfort, and competence while being able to speak straight, without sugar coating, to Norman and Chelsea when necessary. She also has a wonderful singing voice that makes old cheers from a camp Ethel attended as a girl seem fresh and buoying.
Vaccaro as Bill makes his lone major scene count as he exudes humor and amused tolerance as a newcomer dealing with Norman. He adds to the natural tone of Atkinson’s production and is a worthy foil to Baker. Parker, as the son, shows contemporary spunk while being open to Norman’s plans in a bright, intelligent performance. And Michael Satow is affable as Charlie, the dim mail carrier who was Chelsea’s childhood sweetheart.
Charles Morgan’s set exudes the rustic with heavy timber supports and furniture crafted from trees. Linda B. Stockton’s eye is perfectly attuned to the look of each character and is especially sharp in the comfortably worn outfits she designs for Ethel.
On Golden Pond, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, February 10, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m. and Sunday, 3 p.m. $40 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.