This Pond is Still Golden

Almost 30 years after its premiere on Broadway, Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” continues to shine. The dramatic comedy opened Elkhart Civic Theatre’s 47th season Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House with a cast headed by Bob Franklin and Susan D. South. The simple story of one summer at a Maine lake house offers an abundance of laughs, a few well-earned tears and characters that hit close — sometimes too close — to home. The play opened originally in 1979, earning leading lady Frances Sternhagen a Tony Award. The 2005 revival starred James Earl Jones (also a Tony winner) and Leslie Uggams. it is undoubtedly best known for the 1981 screen version which earned Oscars for stars Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. There is a reason for it’s continued popularity and the ECT production shows why. Norman and Ethel Thayer are spending their 48th summer in their cottage on Golden Pond, where Norman will mark his 80th birthday. On hand, briefly, are daughter Chelsea (Stephanie Salisbury), her latest boy friend Bill Ray (Carl Wiesinger) and his son, Bill Jr. (Michael Salisbury). Within the first three minutes, it is hilariously obvious  that life with Norman is no easy task. He gives new meaning to the term curmudgeon. Irascible and cantankerous, he has sharp words for all within earshot and, as Ethel declares, his favorite topic is dying. Long estranged from Chelsea, whose continuing — and frustrating — purpose is to please her father, he manages to upset everyone except Ethel who lets his caustic comments roll off her back as the water of Golden Pond rolls off her favorite water fowl, the loons. The bottom line: She loves him. Bill, a dentist from California, tries almost successfully to beard the lion in his den. An hilarious scene in which he attempts to put his cards on the table regarding sexual mores concludes with the frustrated suitor declaring “You have a good time messing with people’s heads.” Norman nods in agreement. Left with the Thayers while Chelsea and Bill head for Europe, 13-yeqr-old  Bill Jr. eventually bridges the age gap and connects with Norman via classic literature, lots of fishing and the sharing of his teen vocabulary. The role of Norman, which he played in the 1992 ECT production,  fits Franklin like a well-worn old jacket. His Norman is not a cruel or vicious man.  He is what he is and doesn’t feel required to change for anyone.   Beneath his fixation with mortality, is a genuine and increasing anxiety about what may lie not too far in the future. He is losing his grip but determined not to let anyone know. And probably no none does except  Ethel. South never “plays” old, even though she is several decades younger than her character. She finds instead the warmth, understanding and, so necessary with Norman, the unending patience of a wife who knows her husband better than he knows himself and always puts him first.  Wiesinger has only one scene but he makes it count. Stephanie Salisbury is the emotional Thayer but is almost too controlled in baring her feelings about Norman to her “Mommy.” Michael Salisbury is everyteen, striving to shock but  ready to meet adults halfway. Like most teens, he needs to project. As Charlie  Martin, the lake postman and long-time friend of the Thayers, David Robey delivers a laugh that eventually becomes rather infectuous. The Thayers summer in another ready-to-live-in set designed by John Jay Shoup, based on Leslie Torok’s design for the ’92production. Hope the screen door survives the run. On opening night, the pace was too slow in spots, but this happens frequently in a comedy where timing must be razor sharp and the addition of audience laughter factored in on the spot. “On Golden Pond” is directed by Randy Zonker. It plays at 8 p.m. today and next Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 21. For tickets: 848-4116.