CEDAR CITY — Imagine sitting in a living room watching the mundane, everyday conversations that move a family through a typical summer. Such moments are easy to picture and are so familiar that they have become the iconic stuff of late night reruns.  But without a conscious storyboard to dictate conflict or climax, without an instrumental track to manipulate emotion, without sound effects to punctuate or a live studio audience to lull one into the comfortable act of laughing along, even the best scripted conversation runs the risk of becoming nothing but common.

Clarence Gilyard as Norman Thayer, Jr. and Janice Brooks as Ethel Thayer. Photo by Karl Hugh.

Clarence Gilyard as Norman Thayer, Jr. and Janice Brooks as Ethel Thayer. Photo by Karl Hugh.

On Golden Pond takes place in the front room of Norman and Ethel Thayer, the audience acting as a silent witness to the two problems atop the Thayer’s summer concerns: Norman’s Alzheimer’s and the widening chasm between him and his daughter Chelsea.  But, as is so often the case in our real lives, only a small percentage of conversations even address these conflicts, and the lives of the Thayers seem to meander along from scene to scene with little purpose or direction.

This, I suppose, is what confused me the most about On Golden Pond.  Unlike real life, the play had both writer Ernest Thompson and director Douglas Hill whose guidance could have given the experience more of a point.  Unless, of course, that really was the point, in which case the show achieved its objectives but failed to share them in any way relevant to me.

Despite my inability to grasp the show’s purpose, I cannot help but recognize the talent on stage. Clarence Gilyard as Norman Thayer, Jr. was thoroughly endearing. At the show’s opening, he danced to the music on the radio, a quirky version of my own grandfather. The banter between Norman and Ethel (portrayed by Janice Brooks) was effortlessly constant, the sort of loving argument that falls into its own unique rhythm after years of a shared life. The show finally got a small burst of energy when Kyler Krause and Christopher Whiteside entered as Billy and Bill Ray. But it turned out to be unsustainable as the slow pace of the Thayer home quickly derailed the motion.

Then there was the discomfort. Clearly a period piece, On Golden Pond left me in stunned silence as Norman delivered line after line of insensitive commentary on everything from race to religion to sexual preference. Although this was an accurate depiction of real life (much of what is said in many living rooms across the world is politically incorrect), these statements seemed both irrelevant to the loose plot and inapplicable to the majority of the script’s jokes. As with much of the experience of watching On Golden Pond, I simply didn’t understand the need.

I did enjoy watching a typical living room receive the theatrical treatment of the Neil Simon Festival, enjoying most notably the directional sound designed by Douglas Hill that brought some noises close to me while keeping others at bay. I was also intrigued by set designer Brian Smallwood‘s bare-bones approach to the exterior of the Thayer home, leaving the wall bare to its studs allowing full view of the theater’s white rear wall. Lighting designer Rebekah Bugg‘s work in illuminating that back wall provided a much needed sense of the passage of time.

Leaving this production felt much like the long awaited moment of freedom at the conclusion of a too-long family gathering.  If you are able to make it to Cedar City this summer, I would leave On Golden Pond off your itinerary.

The Neil Simon Festival production of On Golden Pond play on July 29, August 4 and 13 at 8 PM and July 27, August 6, and 11 at 2 PM at the Heritage Center Theater (105 N. 100 E., Cedar City).  Tickets are $21-26. For more information, visit www.simonfest.org.