Encore Michigan

JET’s ‘Golden Pond’ is golden indeed

Review September 08, 2019 Patrice Nolan

WALLED LAKE, Mich.— The Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s staging of Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond seems appropriately autumnal as its story chases from spring to fall in and exploration of the leaf-changing, life-changing dynamics that color family relationships. The focus of this charming story is the love between parents and their adult children, and between the aging spouses themselves who are approaching the last season of their lives.

The story of Thompson’s play (and his subsequent film with Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda) skims like a stone across the pond’s surface, touching lightly on themes of familial love, generational differences, harbored resentments, and acquiescing to the healing power of love. It is a small story that speaks to us in a big way because the emotional truths are eternally relevant. Although the play is 40 years old and set in the mid-to-late ‘70s, we can still listen to the characters and think, ‘oh yes… I’ve met you before … I recognize you.’

The play begins with Ethel and Norman Thayer opening up their family home on Golden Pond in Maine. It’s where they’ve spent countless summers as a family and where Ethel lived as a child, infused throughout with reminiscences both good and bad. Norman is a die-hard curmudgeon unnerved by his impending 80th birthday and the terrifying memory losses he tries to hide from Ethel. Ethel is creeping up on 70, but she is a lovely, witty, energetic and gracious woman who excels in living in the moment.

Norman is estranged from their only daughter, Chelsea, who lives in LA and hasn’t visited Golden Pond in years. We learn that Norman managed to antagonize her over the years through unrealistic expectations and unrelenting judgement. Chelsea’s major failing, we are given to understand, is that she wasn’t a son.

In periodic visits from family friend and local mail man Charlie Martin, we get a better view of life on Golden Pond. Charlie is described as Chelsea’s “summer boyfriend for 12 years” and it’s clear that as cheerful as Charlie is, he never quite got over her. We also witness, first-hand, how Norman’s caustic wit can undermine otherwise happy, confident people.

Ethel has convinced Chelsea to visit for Norman’s 80th birthday and she arrives  with a serious boyfriend, Bill Ray, his 13-year-old son, Billy Jr., and a sizeable chip on her shoulder. Ultimately, it’s arranged for Billy to spend a month on Golden Pond while Chelsea and Bill tour Europe. Norman and Billy strike up an unlikely relationship, leavened, perhaps, by Norman’s awareness of his own failings and increasing dependency. And when Chelsea returns from Europe, we see that she, too, has lowered her armor.

This isn’t a cheesy “love conquers all” story – but in the end, love kicks some serious butt. And that makes this play endlessly satisfying for all generations.

On Golden Pond is directed by Lynch Travis with his characteristic insight into what is tender, true and flawed in all of us. The characters in this play are fully realized human beings, breathed to life by a dream-team cast of veterans that includes Thomas D. Mahard (Norman Thayer, Jr.), Linda Rabin Hammell (Ethel Thayer), Dan Morrison (Charlie Martin), Melissa Beckwith (Chelsea Thayer Wayne), and Keith Kalinowski (Bill Ray) – plus 12-year-old newcomer Kazimir Kudek (Billy Ray). It’s a joy to watch the actors in action – and reveal the dynamics of ensemble theatre.

The other ubiquitous character in this play is the setting itself – the home on Golden Pond. This is beautifully captured through the collaboration of a design team that includes Set Designer Emily Willemse, Lighting Designer Neil Koivu, and Sound Designer Jim Davis. All the action happens in the house, with its heavy wooden furniture, knitted afghans, stacks of books and boardgames, and photo-laden fireplace mantel. We can feel the sunlight reflected off the lake, pouring through mullioned windows, and listen to the thrum of insects and songbirds, punctuated by the cry of loons. Costume design by Mary  Copenhagen does a nice job of distinguishing the California crowd from the L.L. Bean set, and even the incidental music makes us happy to spend time at the lake.

This JET production of On Golden Pond, staged in their convenient new Walled Lake space, offers a perfect end-of-summer escape – rich with laughter, little moralizing, and much to admire.

Week of 6/5/2023

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