the 1981 film adaptation of “On Golden Pond” was an arthritic demonstration of smiles-through-tears manipulation that won career Oscars — sorry, best actor and actress awards — for venerable stars Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. And while the original stage version has long since been overshadowed by the movie, the Broadway revival of Ernest Thompson’s 1978 play (originally staged at the Kennedy Center last fall) refreshingly favors warm comedy over wrinkly schmaltz. The production’s chief attribute is one of America’s most majestic actors, James Earl Jones, returning to Broadway for the first time in almost two decades. That alone is reason enough to cheer.
Unseen on the Great White Way since his wrenching work in August Wilson’s “Fences” in 1987, Jones is a supremely confident actor with nothing more to prove. As crusty Norman Thayer, Jr., approaching his 80th birthday, the 74-year-old thesp takes the stock figure of an adorable curmudgeon and transforms him, with sensitivity and without showy displays, into a prickly man of great humor, heart and complexity, masking his fear of death and infirmity with deadpan wit. His Norman is a cantankerous old buzzard, a fiercely smart man who delights in taunting people and has trouble displaying affection. But in Jones’ blazing, intelligent eyes and in that incomparable deep velvet voice, his humanity is never in question.
If nothing else in director Leonard Foglia’s dignified production approaches that towering standard, it doesn’t much matter.
The paint-by-numbers backdrop of Ray Klausen’s rustic set allows for some evocative play of clouds, mist and light across the location of the title. But it doesn’t exactly soft-pedal the ponderous symbolism of Thompson’s cuddly play about approaching death, with its cooing husband-and-wife loons on a dying lake in perpetual twilight.
The setting is the comfortable house in woodsy Maine where Professor Emeritus in English Thayer spends the summers with his wife of 48 years, Ethel (Leslie Uggams). A schoolmarmish stoic who cares deeply for her husband despite his orneriness, Ethel has secretly invited daughter Chelsea (Linda Powell) to join them for Norman’s birthday.
Norman’s failing health and lapses in memory fuel a melancholy thread in his and slightly younger Ethel’s awareness he’s on the downhill slide. But the play’s principal conflict comes via his difficult relationship with Chelsea, through her long-harbored resentment of the overbearing father she felt unable to please.
The divide is nudged toward healing when divorced Chelsea brings home her new man Bill Ray (Peter Francis James) and his teen son Billy Ray (Alexander Mitchell). Less of a sullen handful in Mitchell’s plucky, appealing turn than in previous versions, the smart-mouthed kid slips smoothly into his new role as surrogate grandson, fishing companion and student of life and literature to reinvigorated Norman.
If Chelsea remains a largely thankless role that Powell (daughter of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell) can do little to extricate from under the massive chip on her shoulder, her hunger to receive her father’s approval and love is sincerely conveyed.
Despite the emotional agenda, Foglia has very markedly weighted the play toward its humor, aided immeasurably by Jones’ mischievous light touch. The steady laughs come as a welcome surprise and soften the sentimental claptrap into far more palatable entertainment.
Norman’s sometimes cruel habit of toying with people’s minds seems less malicious than playful here. We’re so firmly on the difficult old guy’s side that when James’ character confronts Norman about his games (“I’m very good at recognizing crap when I hear it”), the anger in his words is startling. Clearly, Norman is unaccustomed to people standing up to him, and the sharply played exchange introduces welcome friction and engenders new respect for initially uptight Bill Ray.
Uggams (who stepped in just prior to the D.C. opening to replace Diahann Carroll) foregrounds Ethel’s starchiness and as a result, could seem more physically relaxed in the role. But her tenderness and concern for Norman and the down-to-earth woman’s compassionate, sunny outlook add warmth to the performance. Calculated as it is in the writing, it’s hard not to be moved by the depth of feeling and reaffirmed commitment communicated between the two veteran actors when Norman suffers his health scare.
Cast is completed by Craig Bockhorn in a winning turn as Charlie (here the only white character), the local mailman and Chelsea’s former summer sweetheart. His good-humored resignation at being alone and never having gotten the girl provides an apt reflection of the gentle, bittersweet mood of this oddly satisfying production, which, thanks largely to Jones’ ennobling presence, rescues a creaky play from its uplifting mawkishness.