SPRINGVILLE — The Little Brown Theater’s latest play is On Golden Pond, directed by the theater’s owner Bill Brown and co-directed by Cara Baker. Brown also plays the lead, Norman Thayer, Jr. The first thing you notice as you walk into the Little Brown is that it is a black box with three-sided seating. I personally like these types of theaters as they have some nice advantages. First, the performers don’t need mics. Second, the audience seems to develop a camaraderie, an intimacy. It’s almost as if the audience is part of the play. The set design for On Golden Pond is delightful: a mantled fireplace brimming with memorabilia and photos—some color and some black and white. There are the obligatory fishing poles (fishing is integral to the story), and the hat rack is filled with hats. Norman likes his hats.
The play begins with Norman and his wife of over 40 years, Ethel, opening up their summer cottage on Golden Pond. This really is a cottage, very woodsy-looking. Over the heads of the audience across from the stage is a big painting of Golden Pond, a wonderful feature, and Ethel spends a lot of time in the play looking at the lake, fascinated with the loons that inhabit the water and shore.
In addition to the set design, I thought that the sound was nearly perfect and that it established the mood of a tranquil country pond. However, there is only one song playing before the show as the audience members take their seats, and it plays during each scene change. This got a bit tedious, but I was pleased that there was a different song as the show ended and the lights went dark. I also approved of the lighting. The Little Brown is a tight, happy little theater and the technical aspects of their productions seem to keep getting better and better since the Little Brown opened just last year.
The plot of On Golden Pond may be one that is familiar to many due to the film of the same name produced in 1981. I admit, I was curious how the play would match up to the movie, which gathered three Academy Awards (for Henry Fonda as best actor, Katherine Hepburn as best actress, and for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ernest Thompson, who wrote the play.) The film also garnered seven more Academy Award nominations. This play brought something beautiful to the screen. Of course, the movie—with its movie-sized budget and location filming—was able to tell a far more of a visual story than a play can. Specifically, films make it possible to capture beautiful photography of Golden Pond itself. But the play lends itself to talking about the pond, talking about the loons, and the sound of the motorboat Charlie the mailman motors to bring the mail every day helped me remember that this play really does take place on the edge of a quaint rustic pond.
Bill Brown as Norman Thayer, Jr. may be playing the role of his life. He was born to be the curmudgeonly “Old Poop.” This is actually Brown’s third time playing the role. In an instance of life imitating art, after Brown’s second time putting on the play, he himself had a serious heart attack (Norman has heart palpitations and has to take nitroglycerin in one scene to help him after having a small attack of some kind.) Brown was definitely crabby enough, but when it was time for him to smile (which doesn’t happen often because Thayer is really a crabby old man) Brown shines with delight. But what struck me most is the body language Brown used. It haunts me still. He had this way of sort of looking up, as if searching a higher place to remember the things that his old age had snatched from his memory. Because one of the themes of this story is that Norman is getting very old (80) and is slowly losing his memory.
Bonnie Pence plays Ethel, the beautiful woman that Norman loves. Ethel is fiercely protective of her husband and after so many years married, teases and becomes exasperated with him, but supports Norman and keeps him safe in a way that is charming and poignant. The true theme of this play, in my opinion, is the love story of Norman and Ethel. Pence, too, was in the former productions of On Golden Pond with Brown and it is obvious. Their ease with one another shows. These are actors who’ve played these parts before and have none of the “gee, we’re supposed to be a long-married couple or a new couple in love but I’ve barely met you” kind of awkwardness that is seen in so many plays I attend. Their chemistry is very nice. Peaceful, the way I hope a couple who’ve been together as long as the Thayers have would display. My only criticism of Pence is that Pence wasn’t loud enough to be heard over some of the sound effects. But her movement, her timing, her ease was soothing and effective.
Dane Allred played the confirmed bachelor Charlie the mailman. Allred is brilliant in this role, with his broad Maine accent and his L.L. Bean sturdy (but worn) plaid jacket, whiskers thick on his face. Every scene he was in, which were far too few for me, sparkled and popped and had the energy that was sometimes not as evident in other scenes. Kaye Fugal-Arnold played Chelsea, the Thayer’s only child, now in her late 40’s. She and Norman, whom she calls Norman (not Dad), have a sticky, uncomfortable and downright resentment-filled relationship. Though Chelsea is still close with her mother, she and Norman just don’t get along, and Fugal-Arnold showed this so well. She was anxious, almost brittle in her scenes with Norman. I felt her longing to be accepted and loved by her father.
Chelsea arrives with her boyfriend Bill, played by Jamie Gritton. Gritton isn’t onstage for long, but he has a compelling and rather humorous scene with Norman that shows he’s up to the challenge of calling Norman on his manipulative bullying, which Gritton performed admirably. Gritton’s son Tristan played Billy, Bill’s son. With the arrival of Billy, who ends up staying with the Thayers while Chelsea and Bill go to Europe, there is a transformation in Norman and in Billy as well. Both characters are tough—Norman because he’s been a grump probably his whole life, and Billy because he’s 13 and has been tossed back and forth between his divorced parents. Tristan did a pretty good job, although I think that he should slow down in speaking his lines sometimes.
The play itself is very quiet. There is little spectacle in it, if any. It is the story of a man and woman who have loved each other for most of their lives, who have supported one another, forgiven one another, and have learned the almost impossible task of being comfortable with one another in spite of often very different ideas on how to look at life. Norman is a half-empty glass guy, Ethel definitely sees life as a glass half-full. I wouldn’t recommend this show for anyone under 13, not because there are difficult themes or any profanity or gore or anything sexual (though there is one rather funny scene where sex is discussed), but because the play is for people to see a life, a family, and then ponder it in a quiet, introspective way.