PROVO — Summer is a time for making memories, and family vacations, like the one in On Golden Pond, are an ideal setting. Unfortunately, On Golden Pond at the Covey Center for the Arts is so mundane and forgettable that no memories that audience members create will last beyond the drive home.
On Golden Pond tells the story of an elderly couple, retired English professor Norman Thayer and his wife Ethel, as they spend a summer at their cabin on the shores of Golden Pond in Maine. Norman has the early stages of dementia, but he is still aware enough to participate in his annual rituals: fishing, reading, and giving his family a hard time. Ethel and Norman’s only child, Chelsea, visits to celebrate Norman’s 80th birthday and brings her boyfriend, Bill, and his son, Billy. Ethel offers to take Billy off Chelsea and Bill’s hands for a month so that they can enjoy their own vacation. During that time, Billy and Norman forge a bond and longtime wounds in the family start to heal.
The Covey Center’s production On Golden Pond is not bad. It is just bland and forgettable. Ernest Thompson‘s script lacks any meaningful conflict, and many of the scenes are full of dialogue where characters tell one another information they already know (like Chelsea talking about her experience on the swim team, or Norman reminding Ethel that Chelsea never had children). Another problem is that Norman’s memory loss is inconsistent, and it comes and goes precisely when it is most useful in advancing the plot.
Given the bland source material, the actors did as fine of a job as could be expected. Rick Macy is fully convincing as a man in the early throws of dementia. His slight hunch and gentle shuffle were reminiscent of the Parkinson’s disease (minus the tremors), and Macy’s physical portrayal of a frail man in the sunset of life was consistent throughout the show. Macy also excelled at the crotchety side of Norman, though failed to make him lovable and redeeming enough for me to want to spend an evening with the bigoted, emotionally distant character.
I was concerned about Janice Power’s portrayal of Ethel in the opening scene of the play because Ethel did not seem to worry about Norman’s memory loss and disorientation. However, I warmed up to Power because of how effective she was in showing Ethel’s warmth towards Norman. Power also has the the most enthralling moment of the play in the last scene when a crisis hits the couple. Unfortunately, seeing Power’s shining talent in that part of the play requires wading through over two hours of tedium first.
As local mailman Charlie Martin, Reese Purser is the most energetic cast member on stage, and his booming voice and the character’s dim wits give Charlie a lovable simplicity. Another standout was Dave Benhardt Biesinger in the role of Bill Ray, Chelsea’s fiancé. Biesinger had great sexual chemistry with Amanda Williams (playing Chelsea), and their relationship was the most interesting one in a play about relationships.
Where Williams faltered, though, was showing an emotional motivation behind Chelsea’s sudden change of heart towards her father. I was also confused why Chelsea would be so affectionate and overly friendly with her old boyfriend, Charlie, when she had just married Bill. Chelsea seemed to lead Charlie on emotionally, which is unnecessarily cruel, because Charlie clearly still had feelings for Chelsea.
Director Kathy Curtiss is a master of staging; movements around the stage seemed to naturally flow from the characters’ feelings and mannerisms. Plus, she can stage a phone call in an engaging way. Curtiss’s shortcoming, though, was in the slow pacing of the play, especially with its agonizingly long scene changes. I also wish that Curtiss had done more character work with her actors because the Thayer family did not feel like they had known and lived with one another for decades.
On Golden Pond was first written in 1979, and the script has apparently been updated to take place some time after “The Gulf War” in 1991 but before about 2003 when email and cheap long distance phone calls made sending letters to family members obsolete. But the play was costumed by Chelsea Mortensen to take place today, and Billy’s Fortnite shirt and Deadpool hat distracted from the play’s intended time period. (Curtiss also had Billy playing with a cell phone in his first scene, which then disappeared and was never seen again.)
Other distractions lessened the overall experience. Props (not specifically credited in the program) were sometimes incongruous. The heavy table in the cabin looked like it weighed about 15 pounds, and the newspapers were obvious fakes, which was easy to see in the small performing space. Most absurd of all, though, was the “Mr. Darcy” doll from Ethel’s childhood. Not only did the doll not look like an antique, but it was obviously a modern Ken doll. The laughs and comments from the audience showed that they were not willing to suspend their disbelief to that extreme.
Theatre can be good, and it can be bad. It can even be so bad that it’s good. What theatre can’t be is boring, and that is what On Golden Pond is. The Utah County theatre audience has an abundance of choices in the summer, and almost any of them would provide a more interesting experience than the long slog that is On Golden Pond.