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By Robert Delaney
A crotchety old man takes renewed interest in living after he's saddled with a 13-year-old boy for the summer, leading to a more pleasant life with his wife and reconciliation with his daughter, in Ernest Thompson's 1979 play, "On Golden Pond," the summer offering at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.
Director Michelle Mountain and a terrific cast bring this charming story to the stage in a flawless production that upholds the highest standards of the Purple Rose.
In a story already familiar to many from the 1981 film version that starred Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, we meet Norman Thayer Jr. on his 80th birthday, as he and his wife, Ethel, are reopening their cottage on Golden Pond in Maine for the summer.
Ethel has to put up with not only Norman's old sarcastic humor, but also his increasing forgetfulness and crankiness.
The Thayers haven't seen much of their only daughter, Chelsea, in recent years, but now she shows up with her lover, Bill Ray, and his son, Billy Ray. And not only shows up, but wants to leave the boy with her folks so she and Bill Ray can go on a romantic trip to Europe together.
Being able to play grandpa and grandma to Billy Ray turns out to have a rejuvenating effect on Norman and Ethel, and other issues are resolved upon Chelsea's return.
Sure, it's a story that could be maudlin, but Thompson's always clever writing and the splendid acting of this cast under Mountain's direction keeps it from becoming so. While I never saw the movie, as part of my general policy of "chick flick" avoidance, I confess to having been totally charmed and delighted by this live theater version.
And while I could easily imagine how good Henry Fonda probably was as Norman, I doubt he had anything on John Peakes' stage portrayal.
Peakes, the former longtime director of the BoarsHead Theatre in Lansing, a theater he founded, is a remarkable actor. He is so well paired with Jan Radcliff as Ethel that I shouldn't be surprised if they have to get a divorce when Peakes leaves the role Aug. 5 (to be replaced by Richard Henzel for the remainder of the run).
The role of Billy Ray is double-cast, with Ian Bejster playing the part some performances and Milo Tucker-Meyer playing it in others. I saw Tucker-Meyer, and he makes a great young foil for Norman's jibes and sarcasms, as the two characters develop a genuine fondness for each other.
We also get fine performances from Rhiannon Ragland as Chelsea, Tom Whalen as Bill Ray, and David Daoust as Charlie, Chelsea's old boyfriend.
It is no surprise that such a warm and human play should have been directed by Mountain, a splendid actress who projects a warm and appealing persona whenever she is on stage herself.
Adding to the delight of this production is the gorgeous set designed by Bartley H. Bauer and decorated by properties designer Danna Segrest. Purple Rose's "On Golden Pond" is a wonderful treat for Southeast Michigan theatergoers.
And driving to Chelsea makes a nice excursion, whether you combine the play with dinner at The Common Grill or just some ice cream at Zou Zou's.
SHOW DETAILS: "On Golden Pond" continues through Sept. 1 at the Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street, in Chelsea, just off Interstate 94 about 10 minutes west of Ann Arbor. For performance and ticket information, call 734-433-ROSE or access their website at www.purplerosetheatre.org.
Reprinted with permission of the New Monitor, July 5, 2012
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