As old and reliable as Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” has become just 37 years after making a splashy off-Broadway debut, it is not a piece whose entertainment value can be taken for granted.
Thompson’s story, about a curmudgeonly 80-year-old man who gradually softens to the point of becoming endearing, or at least to where we appreciate the humanity beneath the crust, is sturdy, but it needs strong, commanding lead performances to come fully alive. In a production where the characters’ personality and sentimentality don’t dominate, the mechanics and inconsistencies of Thompson’s script start to show.
“On Golden Pond” can become a collection of lines that don’t resonate or enchant. A play that has the potential to move, amuse, and grab your heart is exposed as a mediocrity that lacks the craft and charm to depend on its dialogue alone. Acting of the kind associated with Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen in the 1978 original production, or Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in the 1981 movie, is required.
“On Golden Pond” remaining at its simplest, most narrative level is the problem with Jonathan Silverstein’s staging of the show for New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse. Line presentation, especially on the part of male lead, Keir Dullea, often takes the place of deep characterization. The creaks, manipulations, and shorthand in Thompson’s script overshadow the genuine pathos and sweet, but palpable, power of his story. You see the seams in the writing more than you feel the honest emotions of characters who have spent a long time either understanding or trying, in one case longingly, to understand each other. That writing does not suffice or satisfy, so Silverstein’s production only offers a sketch of Thompson’s play instead of its full, proven majesty.
Character depth is the constant culprit. Mia Dillon, as the wise woman who is aware of the benevolence under her husband’s grouchy, condescending exterior, valiantly presses on with a complete, nuanced performance that shows the various facets of her character and brings texture, warmth, and perception to the Bucks County stage, but she is practically taking on Thompson’s play singlehandedly and has the less pivotal of the focal roles.
Only Todd Cerveris as a congenial mailman who has known the Thayer family for the 40 or more summers they’ve been coming to Golden Pond, and Don Noble as the fiance who believes he can find happiness with the Thayers’ daughter, Chelsea, give Dillon someone with a real core to play against. Noble even manages to bring out the actor in Dullea during a scene in which father and just-introduced potential son-in-law are left to make conversation or sit in awkward silence.
Good though Cerveris and Noble are, and able though Cameron Clifford as the boy who transforms a codger’s life can be, they are secondary figures. The actors who have to match Dillon in authenticity and intensity are Dullea, her real life husband, and Christa Scott-Reed as the unrelentingly resentful Chelsea, and they both confine their performances to the surface, so Silverstein’s production stays there as well.
Not that Dullea doesn’t have moments. His entrance, in which he walks in a room, then has the startled, confused look of someone who doesn’t exactly remember what he came to do or get, is marvelous. You think in those first 20 seconds, “Wow, Dullea’s already in full gear. This is going to be a great performance.” Then, Dullea speaks, and the toneless, perfunctory nature of his line delivery erases the anticipation of excellence.
Worse, you sense Dullea pretending to his character’s crabbiness rather than living it. Norman Thayer is a man who enjoys goading, intimidating, and humiliating people with cranky side comments, insinuating questions, and literal responses to figurative remarks. His disagreeable nature in ingrained. The audience, like his wife, sees through the studied belligerence, but it has to be more than the game Dullea makes of it to reveal Norman’s core and to contrast it with the nicer, more dependent, increasingly more fragile man the cantankerousness protects.
In most scenes, Dullea seems to be going through the paces dictated by Thompson’s text. In his scene with Noble, more occurs. Men who have no interest or care about whether they like each other confront their positions and come to an understanding in a way that becomes realistic. Dullea suddenly gives Norman’s taunts a purpose. It seems to matter to him that Norman’s bedeviling ways make an impression and daunt his daughter’s significant other. The scene shows Dullea can parry wittily and not just for effect. He is especially funny as he explains how his wife’s name, Ethel Thayer, makes Norman thound ath though he’s lithping. Silverstein needs to convey more that sincerity.
Scott-Reed takes Chelseas’s coldness towards Norman too literally. You hear her complaint, but you never see her hurt. The scene between Scott-Reed and Dullea, rather than being a touching denouement, registers as emotionless and matter-of-fact. You realize Thompson did not give Chelsea the lines to explain her anger for Norman. It has to be conveyed through the actors’ interaction. Scott-Reed and Dullea don’t have it in them to make this happen, so a crucial part of “On Golden Pond” is neutered, left unplayed in drama that depends on it.
The relationship between Norman and his future step-grandchild is better defined, possibly because Clifford is so natural, and 2015, in his performance.
The heart and soul of the Bucks County production stays with Mia Dillon who, with authentic ease shows the panoply of all Ethel is in love, sentiment, and practicality. The grace, and seeming effortlessness of Dillon’s performance coalesces in the scene in which Ethel, alone in the Golden Pond cabin she inherited from her parents, is moved to perform a campfire dance she did as a girl. Like most of Dillon’s felicitous portrayal, the moment is just lovely.
On Golden Pond, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Through Sunday, August 2. Tuesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 p.m. $29 to $89. www.bcptheater.org or 215-862-2121.