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On Golden Pond — Bucks County Playhouse

DonNoble_KeirDulleaAmong the reasons why production is more important than text is the contribution actors make to any performance.

Actors, as well as directors, cannot only enhance assets in a script. They can cover flaws and inadequacies. Like a good accompanist, they can make a fellow artist from a different discipline look better than he or she is. On the other hand, imprecise or limited acting can expose the traps and flaws in a piece regarded as tried and true.

Such, unfortunately, is the case with “On Golden Pond” at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse.

To date, in productions starring Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen, James Broderick and Sada Thompson, James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams, and, most famously, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in the 1981 movie, showed Ernest Thompson’s script to be sturdy and reliable. “On Golden Pond” came off as play with depth and exhibited understanding of the settled-in quality of long marriage while showing how one character in particular can benefit from time-honored theatrical journey and change.

“On Golden Pond” gives actors everything they need to succeed. It’s generous in the emotion it allows characters to express, it has sequences of quiet but firm heart-to-heart, and it exudes a warmth of familiarity and affection that radiates beyond one character’s crotchety demeanor and another’s long-held resentment. Thompson wrote a good play.

Or did he?

The answer might be ‘no.’

In previous productions of “On Golden Pond,” the actors filled the stage with intensity. They conveyed the positive attribute of Thompson’s script by establish the love everyone on stage has for the other. Genuine sentiment projected as an intentionally cantankerous curmudgeon softened as he taught a little boy to fish and appreciate good storytelling as found in Johann David Wyss’s “Swiss Family Robinson” or Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Maternal frankness and wifely loyalty added to the play’s texture while Ethel, the lead character, also showed her independence and playful personality. A grown daughter’s hard feelings about her upbringing seemed more petulant and ripe for amelioration than bratty and stubbornly rooted. An engaging, involving mise en scene emerges.

As opposed to Thompson’s play, the Bucks County Playhouse production is cold. It doesn’t engross and, more to its detriment, it suppresses your opportunity, and desire, to like two of the three pivotal characters.

The production doesn’t serve Thompson or “On Golden Pond.” Rather than capitalizing on its script’s virtues, the Bucks County productions lays bare its seams. Without strong characterizations to give a natural, conversational, or confrontational feel for Thompson’s lines, we the shabbiness and ordinariness of the dialogue. What always seemed genuine is not flat and false. The skeleton of the play is revealed, and we realize how much it needs the flesh and features of the human condition to make it attractive and playable.

Jonathan Silverstein’s staging is not to blame. It is straightforward and direct. Scenes move at a good pace, and all of the characters look natural and comfortable in their setting. Silverstein has made no directorial mistakes or allowed any deficiencies you can pin on him.

The problem, plain and simple, is the lead performance of Keir Dullea, in the role of Norman Thayer, a retired Penn professor and resident of Wilmington who spends annual summers with his wife, Ethel, at her inherited waterside house by Maine’s Golden Pond.

Dullea gives Norman no range. He displays the flaws in Thompson’s script by playing Norman line by line in a tone that doesn’t vary throughout Silverstein’s production.

Dullea is inert. He shows little human feeling towards anyone. Norman is supposed to be aloof, sarcastic, and condescending. From his opening gambit, a snide upbraiding he gives a Maine telephone operator when she can’t comprehend exactly what he wants, we see Norman likes to ride people, play games with their heads, and use his superior facility with language to intimidate or one-up them.

We actually hear it more than see it. We naturally, at the beginning of a play, listen more for bits of exposition or clues to a character’s manner. Thompson tells us what we need to know, but it seems contrived because Dullea is so flat. He is an actor playing at creating a character rather than an actor embodying and living a character. There is no texture or rhythm to his speech. He reverses Thompson’s intention. He shows Norman to be a bully carping at the operator for things that might have more to with Norman being hard of hearing than it does the operator’s incompetence.

The point is in a good production of “On Golden Pond,” you should be on Norman’s side. You should see the comedy and common ground of him becoming exasperated as he deals with a service representative who can’t do the simplest and everyday task. Instead, we feel sorry for the operator. Dullea’s Norman comes across as a grouch, as an unkind, nasty person who indulges his sense of superiority, as opposed to coping as best he can with a possible nitwit.

From the outset, Dullea’s Norman is not likeable. More importantly, his style of line delivery, if you can flatter it enough to say it has a style, will be consistent, so Norman never wins you over. Rather, you wonder how Ethel tolerates living with him and why he let him come into the car instead of leaving him in Delaware as she headed to Maine.

The damage to Thompson is the most devastating. Dullea’s portrayal diminishes “On Golden Pond.” It robs it of so many dimensions it needs to be the warm, pleasing piece it has traditionally been.

NealBoxThe lack of texture in Dullea’s performance translates into a lack of texture for the entire play. Without emotional development radiating from the characters, “On Golden Pond’s” plot looks as if it is too much by the numbers. You see Thompson’s formula because there’s no emotional underpinnings to give the audience something to savor. Of course, you see, Norman and the adolescent son of his daughter’s fiancée bonding. That’s inherent in the script. What you don’t get is the gratifying sentiment that should exude from Norman finding a buddy and being a good surrogate grandfather, an element that is so necessary for “On Golden Pond’s” success. Dullea’s approach is so matter-of-fact, so unenhanced by anything, you take Norman’s transition for granted instead of seeing it for the breakthrough change it is.

Dullea remains a person mouthing Norman’s lines, not an actor, a famous one with significant credentials. This is most telling is the scenes in which Norman is most testy. As with the opening scene with the operator, we never take Norman’s side. Dullea fails to let us see Norman as a snide clown to uses his verbal tricks and slightly veiled insults as a personality trait.

On the contrary, he always seems mean and misanthropic. This is a character who needs to have the audience go along with his joke and accept his style as just plain grouchy and sarcastic. Instead, we sympathize with Norman’s victims. That prevents us from liking Norman or caring about whether he’s a capable of change. Even is Dullea’s best scenes, Norman comes off as the rogue, the superannuated brat, the villain.

And Dullea does have some good scenes, even an unexpectedly touching one.

Two of his best moment are silent. One comes in the first instance the lights are up on Steven C. Kemp’s excellent set. Dullea comes from stage right to center stage, stops, and looks befuddled as if he couldn’t remember why he came into his house’s living room.

He plays the moment perfectly. We all experience a tinge of recognition as we see Norman’s confusion and know exactly from where it stems.

A similar moment, the touching one, comes at the top of a scene in which Norman is taking his daughter’s fiancée’s son, age 13, fishing. The two have made a habit of rowing the canoe on the pond, finding a place to roost, and spending the day fishing, reading, enjoying a lunch Ethel packs, and talking to each other.

The boy has not yet arisen. At least, he hasn’t appeared, and Dullea’s Norman, though standing still, looks for him longingly and anxiously. The bond has been made. Norman, the grumpy old coot, looks forward to his outings with this boy. Grandfather and grandson, if “step,” are forging a relationship, one each can cherish and remember. Dullea is moving as he waits expectantly for his partner in marine crime to emerge and begin the day.

Then there’s the scene that shows Dullea recalls his business as an actor and can create an intense scene that involves dialogue and relating verbally to another person on stage.

I mentioned Norman likes to play with people’s heads. He brandishes the outrageous statement or literal reaction to a figurative remark like a fateful sword, the simple presence of which put another person on his guard, intimidated and dressed down. Norman doesn’t care if he means everything he says. He is not a ready conversationalist, and he looks at verbal byplay as a blood sport in which he vanquishes his opponent by wielding sarcasm to a point of distraction.

Throughout Silverstein’s production, Dullea makes Norman’s intention clear. He just doesn’t make it interesting or entertaining.

An exception comes when Norman is left with the men his daughter with whom his daughter, Chelsea, is about to embark on a multi-week trip to Europe, leaving his son in Maine for the Thayers to mind.

This scene comes before Norman strikes up a mutually affectionate attachment to the boy, Billy, Jr. In it, he is talking to Billy’s father, also Billy, and being a testy and unpleasant as ever, possibly cranking up the taunts and innuendoes to really get under Billy’s skin.

Thompson has Billy turn on Norman and accurately identify and describe his modus operandi. The exchange takes on some texture. It gives Silverstein’s production some desperately needed weight and atmosphere. Dullea’s Norman connects in a visceral way with Don Noble’s Billy. There’s palpable, cut-with-a knife tension in the air. Theater happens.

You wonder where Dullea has been keeping this ability all evening or what Noble does to bring him out of his monotonous, atonal, matter-of-fact sleepwalk to become a character who suddenly behaves as if he has something at stake.

It’s a good scene, Not just welcome and refreshing, but good. We see a Norman that goes beyond the surface, and hear a confrontation that’s important because Billy has basically told Norman he doesn’t need to like him and is unconcerned about what he thinks about him or his likely marriage to Chelsea. Norman can be as nasty as he likes, and Billy, Chelsea, and Billy, Jr. will be in California, 3,000 miles away from Wilmington or Maine, and indifferent, or better, immune to his bullying tactics and scorn.

Dullea’s Norman is affected by this. You can see him realizing he’s met a honest, courageous man who isn’t going to take his guff. Noble, fine throughout Silverstein’s staging, has done something no other actor has managed, he’s made Dullea portray a full character rather than a cipher who read lines on cue with an unconvincing edge to voice.

Kudos to Noble.

Dullea even does well with a joke his usual delivery would have shown for the contrivance it is but shouldn’t be if played right.

Chelsea calls her father Norman for reasons that become obvious. Because of that, Billy is aware of Norman’s name. Chelsea always refers to her mother as Mommy, so Billy has to ask Norman what to call her.

“Ethel,” Norman says. “That’s her name, Ethel Thayer. Lithen to it. It’s a tongue twister. Ethel Thayer, You thay it, and people think you mutht be lithping.”

Dullea gets the gag out with a comic flair and, for once, doesn’t hang Thompson’s dialogue out to dry or be exposed as labored.

Ironically, while Dullea’s Norman shows he has a bond with Billy, Jr. and comes surprisingly animated during his scene with Noble’s Billy, he doesn’t seem to spark any chemistry when playing opposite Mia Dillon’s well drawn and fully dimensional Ethel.

The irony is Dullea and Dillon are married in real life and have been for 16 years!

Forgive me for just getting to writing about Dillon because she is as complete and human in her performance as Dullea is perfunctory and wooden.

ChristaScottReed_MiaDillonDillon conveys Ethel’s love for her long-time family home. She takes delight on loons who waft across Golden Pond and is a congenial friend to the postman who has been delivering mail from his motorized skiff for 25 years, let alone a loving, tolerant, attentive wife to Norman and a adult mother to Chelsea, meaning Dillon’s Ethel talks to her daughter as an equal and a friend and not in a tone that establishes parent-child barriers even though the women involved are ages 45 and 69.

Dillon can be a doting, welcoming Mom who gladly takes in Billy and Billy, Jr. while being able to have woman-to-woman talks in which mother and daughter can each bask in her maturity and never become dependent and authority, as Chelsea tends to do with Norman.

Dillon can fill the stage in solo moments. Even when she’s fluffing a sofa pillow, she shows how at home and how happy Ethel is at Golden Pond.

Ethel also knows how to entertain herself. Dillon is a lot of fun as Ethel launches into the silly song she sang as a girl when she attended camp and learned dances and rituals with other children who summered on Golden Pond.

Dillon always gives life and reality to her surroundings. You see Ethel come through at quiet and emotional moments. She talks to Dullea’s Norman in the tone of one trying to have a conversation and make a gentle point. She soldiers on valiantly in this even when she gets too little response from Dullea to build a scene, and to establish the kind of relationship and depth of character that would obscure “On Golden Pond’s” literary shortcomings instead of unveiling them.

That’s the main problem with the Bucks County production. “On Golden Pond,” so seemingly reliable and indestructible, crumbles under Dullea’s line-for-line plodding. Any of Thompson’s artistry, or Dillon’s, is lost in Dullea’s cigar-store stolidity. You see too clearly how actor-dependent “On Golden Pond” is, that its success is not inherent in the script, that is needs two lead actors, and two supports, who can exude the emotion and likeable ways that make you like Norman for all of his crustiness and enjoy the habit-laden way in which he and Ethel get along so beautifully. “On Golden Pond” relies on characterization more than on Thompson’s script for its theatrical viability. One wanting performance brings down the whole impression that warmth and intelligence reign in the Thayer households, no matter how cantankerous Norman might choose at any occasion to be.

This look at a family that loves each other in spite of some juvenile enmity is what makes “On Golden Pond” work so felicitously most of the time. With Norman unable to muster an impression of love for his wife or daughter and making us think Ethel would do just as well without him and should stop ministering to his health and other needs, the equation doesn’t come together. “On Golden Pond” looks clunky and old-fashioned.

The most lifeless part of Bucks County’s “On Golden Pond” comes in the scene that should be the most emotionally charged, the one in which Chelsea confronts Norman about matters that have been bothering her, and perhaps stymieing her for the past 25 years of her life. Chelsea doesn’t believe she ever received the regard or affection, let alone the sensitivity Norman has shown to Billy, Jr. They talk about fishing trips they had and Norman keeping Chelsea to an intellectual standard, but somehow the episode between Dullea and Christa Scott-Reed’s Chelsea never registers with the painful, telling dramatic heft that is its wont.

Maybe Dullea and Scott-Reed were going for portraying two peas in a pod, a tough and stoic quality shared between father and daughter. In many productions, that might be a good thing, a way of showing reconciliation may be improbable or tenuous because neither party is emotionally equipped to be intimate with anyone but Ethel in her roles as wife and mother, individually serving the needs of her loved ones without being able to make them friends.

Whatever Silverstein’s or the actors’ intentions, their scene plays sterilely. It begins and ends at impasse, no matter how plaintively Chelsea tries to express her side. Maybe a thrashout and an epiphany would have been better, but Dullea is not given to the big scene, the outbreak of temper. His Norman is more methodical and surgical for that, more like George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Scott-Reed, like Dillon, has no one whom can play off. There’s no fire to fight with fire, so she becomes a tepid as Dullea.

Don Noble is excellent throughout the production. His conversation with Norman is the highlight of the Bucks County production. Noble also projects the way Billy would get any rational in-law’s approval and regard, as he earns Ethel’s.

Todd Cerveris is the most natural member of the cast as Charlie, the Golden Pond postman and friend since childhood to Chelsea, whom he once dated and to whom he once proposed. Cerveris has an ease with all the characters, particularly Dillon’s Ethel, with whom he comfortably talks over old times and discusses the mundane, but in a way that engages and shows how smoothly “On Golden Pond” can flow when an emphasis in put on developing a character rather than giving an impression of a character and letting the lines attempt to do all of the work.

Cameron Clifford is refreshing as Billy, Jr. He reflects 2015 in attitude more than 1979 when “On Golden Pond” is set, but he is wonderful at showing how taken he is with Norman and how close he feels to this step-grandfather.

Clifford is a child actor with no airs. He’s a roly-poly fireplug kind of guy who arrives on stage and doesn’t give a hint of giving a performance. He’s just the kid who shows up to spent the summer, and he is as authentic as one could get. From Moment One, you know who this Billy, Jr. is, and Clifford retains that natural impression throughout the show.

Steven C. Kemp pondside house makes you want to move to Maine with its airy high ceiling, its widespread decorations, and its comfortable furniture. Bucks County Playhouse usually aces its sets, but Kemp’s is so authentic and inviting, broken storm door and all, he may get the prize for the best use of the Bucks County space. Jennifer Paar’s costumes suit all concerned. I especially liked that she kept Clifford’s Billy, Jr, casual instead of dressing overly neatly or in clothes that might be chosen to please future grandparents. Clifford looks like a boy on a Maine vacation, and that added to the actor’s realistic turn. Gina Scherr brought the sun into the Thayers’ big-windowed living room during morning scenes and retained the brightness with a little dimming for afternoon sequences.

“On Golden Pond” runs through Sunday, August 2, at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $89 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 215-862-2121 or by visiting www.bcptheater.org.

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