ongoldenpondBy Manning Harris

If you’re a theatregoer of a certain age, you almost certainly will have seen Henry Fonda’s and Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning performances in Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond,” released in 1981.  Can it really have been 33 years ago?  It can, and the play opened on Broadway two years before that.

Dunwoody’s Stage Door Players are currently performing a fine revival, running through Feb. 16, directed by Kelly Criss.

In case you are not of a certain age, I’ll tell you that Norman (Theo Harness) and Ethel (Jackie Prucha) Thayer are spending their 48th summer “on Golden Pond,” their charming summer house in Maine.  The house, like its owners, may have seen better days (for example, there’s a screen door that has a mind of its own), but with a little sprucing up, both house and owners revitalize nicely.

But time, that “endless idiot,” as Carson McCullers called it, has made inroads:  Norman is having more frequent bouts of forgetfulness, but with Ethel’s patient encouragement, nothing too serious.  He’s about to celebrate his 80th  birthday; Ethel is about ten years younger.  The couple has one grown child, a daughter named Chelsea (Dori Garziano Leeman), who’s about to visit, bringing her boyfriend Bill Ray (Matt Lewis), who has a 13-year-old son named Billy (Sam Costantino).

For some reason, there has always been a little friction between Chelsea and her father.  Even as a child, Chelsea never felt she could truly please Norman (the “old poop,” as Ethel fondly calls him).  She blames Ethel, still, for not perceiving and fixing this discord; and Ethel tells Chelsea bluntly that it’s time to get over it and live in the present (good advice for anyone).

But when Chelsea and Bill go to Europe for a month, they leave Billy with Norman and Ethel, and a remarkable thing happens:  Billy and Norman bond like gangbusters. They both love to fish, and they hit the lake every day, each boasting that he will bag the bigger catch.  It becomes evident that Norman really had wanted a son; not that he didn’t love Chelsea, but there you are.

About the cast:  Theo Harness is quite marvelous as Norman, and it’s a pleasure to see him back on the boards.  Jackie Prucha’s loving attentiveness to Norman is moving to behold; it makes us all long for a longtime companion with Ethel’s empathetic qualities.  These two performances anchor the play.

Ms. Leeman’s Chelsea is at once earnest and yearning; Mr. Lewis’ Bill is fine; he’s at his best when he confronts Norman, demanding the older man’s approval.  He’s not intimidated by Norman’s cantankerousness.  Jim Dailey, as Charlie, the mailman and former suitor of Chelsea, is totally believable as a man who, some would say, has “settled”; but he’s made peace with himself.

That leaves Sam Costantino as young Billy.  The only problem here is we don’t see enough of him.  At his young age, Mr. Costantino already has some solid acting credits with some impressive Atlanta theatres.  His Billy is plucky, fearless, funny, and loving.  If he (Mr. Costantino) keeps developing (and why shouldn’t he?), I would say the sky’s the limit for him.

You might wonder, why do “On Golden Pond” when the film exists with those iconic performances by Fonda and Hepburn (and Fonda’s daughter Jane, as Chelsea)?  It is somewhat risky.  But the fascination with human relationships and our own mortality is not something that’s going away.  I would say that that the pace here should be picked up a bit; for example, why not have two people instead of one do scene changes?   Ms. Kris and her actors need to remind us of Tennessee Williams’ admonition that the “monosyllable of the clock is loss, loss, loss unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.