Thunder River presents On Golden Pond in Carbondale
December 12, 2008
CARBONDALE When Jane Fonda secured the rights to On Golden Pond, she had her father, Henry Fonda, specifically in mind. Ernest Thompsons drama of several generations of the Thayer family gathering at a rustic, lakeside Maine retreat had, at its center, the thorny relationship between an elderly father and a troubled daughter. In the 1981 film adaptation, Fonda gave herself the role of the daughter, Chelsea, and reined in her father to play the sometimes cranky, sometimes sweet Norman. The idea was to work through, on-screen, the real-life issues Fonda had endured with her father.Lon Winston isnt involving his own father quite so directly even though Ralph Winston, at 90, is active, and lucid on topics from politics to sports. Still, the younger Winston, who is directing Thunder River Theatre Companys current version of On Golden Pond, is being influenced by dad. And the nature of their relationship is likely to give this latest version of the story the sweetness of the original, which premiered onstage in 1979, rather than the somewhat darker hue of the film.My father, hes a hugger, said Winston of his father. He sees me, its a hug, a kiss. He loves his family, friends, and hes very affectionate. Well watch a football game, and his hand is hand is on my arm.I know Im bringing that to the play. The touch, the holding hands, the kiss on the cheek: It may be the last time I see you, so why not take this moment and show affection? So we add our own sense of depth to the play.When On Golden Pond made its debut, that gentle flavor was welcomed by some, and overly syrupy to others. The tone was certainly out of step with its times. The subject matter of the day, for playwrights and filmmakers, tended toward the serious, edgy and taboo: Vietnam, homosexuality, violence. The big Tony Award winners in 1979 were the gory musical Sweeney Todd and the play The Elephant Man, a searing look at mans cruelty to man. The Oscar winners for best picture, from 1978 to 1980, were a ground-breaking war drama (The Deer Hunter), a story about a bitter divorce (Kramer vs. Kramer), and a tale of emotional anguish running through an entire family (Ordinary People).On Golden Pond was unapologetically sentimental. The story of the Thayer family reunion did have its tensions, as old wounds and slights are exposed. But there is a comforting glow to the story, and the ever-present certainty that the story will resolve in an old-fashioned upbeat ending. Most reassuring is the character of the elderly Norman, whose combination of crankiness and open-heartedness is infinitely recognizable.On Golden Pond, starring Richard Lyon as Norman, Wendy Perkins as Normans wife, Ethel, and Sharon Brady as Chelsea, shows Friday through Sunday, and Dec. 18-20 at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale.Winston is not without his ambivalence about all this sentimentality. Having participated, either as actor or director, in such past Thunder River productions as Death of a Salesman, Macbeth, Mother Courage and Her Children and ART, he acknowledges that On Golden Pond is not a deep play.But, perhaps consistent with the tone of the material, Winston takes the optimistic view, and finds something to like even in this shortage of depth. In a way, its thinness is interesting to me as a director, because it opens up some channels to find the depths in actor behaviors. Sometimes they can give the characters more depth than the text provides, said Winston, whose cast is rounded out by Gary Marabito as Charlie, the mailman and Chelseas old boyfriend; Tom Reynolds as Chelseas fianc, Bill; and Nick Hunsacker as Bills son, Billy. And there are aspects to the play that make up for the thinness. Its poignant, sensitive, loving, nostalgic, noted Winston, seated in front of a set at the theater that is homey in the extreme lots of dark wood, old books, ancient snowshoes mounted on the wall. The facet that Winston is playing up most is the love story or make that love stories. He finds no shortage of angles on love in On Golden Pond.Its a love story on so many levels, he said. The elderly couple, been together 48 years and theres that sense of unconditional love. Youve got Ethels relationship with her daughter, Chelsea, an only child and if that child isnt everything you want, its not like someone else is coming along. Its a crap-shoot. And theres Normans relationship with Chelsea, which is a harder kind of love.And then you have Chelsea, who calls Ethel, Mommy a 45-year-old woman calling her mother, Mommy. And her father, Norman. That kind of defines what the relationship is.Possibly the defining relationship in the play is that between Norman and the 13-year-old boy who is left in his care. Over daily fishing sessions the two bond, bringing out all of affection and gentleness that Norman never lavished on Chelsea. Billy becomes this saving grace for Norman, said Winston.Rounding out the picture is the angle on past love, embodied in the relationship between Chelsea and Charlie. Its kind of a nostalgic story of puppy love, noted Winston. So you have all these love relationships. Put them in a food processor and its boom, boom, boom: How do all these relationships resolve each other?The production begins with an offstage friendship. Wendy and Richard have found a loving friendship dynamic, said Winston, and its very natural and honest onstage. You get a sense that theyve lived together 48 years. They bring a familiarity, a comradeship, a love and thats absolutely whats needed in these two characters.Another reason Winston can be so fond of the warm tone of his current project is that he knows what is ahead of him. In February, Winston directs Edward Albees Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for Thunder River. The drama, which earned the 1963 Tony Award for best play, was a scathing look into the darkest corners of human relationships.Albee was trying to unveil, in Virginia Woolf, something in the culture that was in our times, said Winston. Coming off the Eisenhower years those real positive years, into Camelot with Kennedy. And Albee saw something percolating underneath. He was investigating through the icon of the family, this underlying decay.Winston added that the final piece of Thunder Rivers 2008-09 season, Lee Blessings Eleemosynary, is also a family play, examining the relationships between a young girl, her mother and her grandmother.Just as Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf anticipated a turbulence that was to come, Winston believes that On Golden Pond was also, in its own way, ahead of its time.When Ernest Thompson first wrote this, in the 70s, a lot of the commentators wrote how brave he was to write such an affectionate play at a time when affection was not prevalent, he said. Weve moved more toward that kind of genuine, familiar friendships. Were in a more affectionate time that genuine love that friends and family share.Winston believes that On Golden Pond is a play more for this time and place, fits right in here better than it did when it was first created.People, now, look to nostalgia. Especially after the last eight years: Wheres the America we loved? Thats not an uncommon feeling. And without making a political statement, said Winston. Even the landslide of Barack Obama its, Lets put on a new face for the world. Where is that genuine connection weve been known to have? [On Golden Pond] speaks to that on an interesting level.
On Golden Pond plays Friday through Sunday, Dec. 12-14, and Dec. 18-20 at the Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale. Performances are at 7:30 p.m., except for the Sunday, Dec. 14 matinee, which begins at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($10 for students) for all Friday and Saturday shows, and $18 ($9 for students) on Sunday, Dec. 14 and for the two Thursday night performances (Dec. 11 and 18). Go to http://www.thunderrivertheatre.com for ticket firstname.lastname@example.org