Ernest Thompson's touching "On Golden Pond" has always been a perfect vehicle for star turns. Along come James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams as the summering Thayers, and what an endearing couple they make.

Ernest Thompson’s touching “On Golden Pond” has always been a perfect vehicle for star turns. Along come James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams as the summering Thayers, and what an endearing couple they make.

The most startling aspect of this limited-run production at the Kennedy Center is that Uggams was a last-minute substitute for Diahann Carroll, who withdrew because of a back injury. Uggams learned the role in an impressive seven days and was truly convincing on opening night with only three previews under her belt.

When the center’s 2004-05 schedule was announced in March, “Pond” was slated as a staged reading, an initiative driven largely by Carroll. In the intervening months, plans for this full production were made.

With his famous voice often at full pitch, Jones offers an especially commanding presence as the gruff and forgetful codger who lumbers around the lakeside cottage seeking opportunities to complain. But his impish and caring sides are meticulously and delightfully revealed by the arrival of a young fishing companion.

Uggams is a more-than-capable match as the family’s stern but loving matriarch. She makes it seem as if we are eavesdropping on a 40-year-plus relationship, while watching this remarkably together woman cope so stoically with her husband’s decline.

Leonard Foglia’s sensitive direction allows the play’s many key moments to sparkle and the action to flow smoothly around Ray Klausen’s rustic cabin set.

The capable supporting cast includes Craig Bockhorn as the cheerful mailman and Linda Powell as the independent daughter, Chelsea, who yearns so badly for her father’s approval. Youngster Alexander Mitchell offers just the right momentum to launch this frail but satisfying play into gear.

On Golden Pond

Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, D.C.; 1,110 seats; $78 top

Production

A Kennedy Center presentation of a Jeffrey Finn production, in association with Soupbone Prods., of a play in two acts by Ernest Thompson. Directed by Leonard Foglia.

Creative

Sets, Ray Klausen; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian Nason. Opened, reviewed Oct. 2, 2004. Runs through Oct. 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Norman Thayer Jr. - James Earl Jones Ethel Thayer - Leslie Uggams Charlie Martin - Craig Bockhorn Chelsea Thayer Wayne - Linda Powell Billy Ray - Alexander Mitchell Bill Ray - Peter Francis James
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