Online since August 2002

'On Golden Pond' a charming, fresh and funny look at generations

James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams shine as loving, bickering pair

Published June 2005

By Lucy Komisar


On Golden Pond
Written by Ernest Thompson
Directed by Leonard Foglia

Cort Theatre
138 W. 48 St.

Ernest Thompson's sentimental and acerbic slice of life about couples and generations is as fresh and funny as it was on Broadway in 1979.

The message is that husbands and wives who love each other will still bicker, parents will be judgmental and kids resentful. An old story, but when James Earl Jones is the crotchety, arrogant, self-centered, over-bearing husband and father and Leslie Uggams the knowing, occasionally crafty and never subservient wife and mother, it comes out fresh and vigorous.

James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams
James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams
Photos by Joan Marcus
The play was written for whites, and these actors are black, but they are as comfortably middle-class as the original Norman Thayer, a retired college professor, and his wife Ethel. Daughter Chelsea (Linda Powell) could be any 30s professional with a going career but a bad marriage behind her. Perhaps the only jarring note comes from the remarks Norman makes about Jews. At first they sound curiously different coming from educated blacks; then you realize, hey, that's America.

Norman and Ethel are closing up their long-time Maine vacation house at end of summer, and Norman is morosely brooding about dying. It's the cool, pleasant autumn of the year, but Norman focuses on his unhappiness about being in the autumn of his years. Ethel would rather enjoy nature, which represents life. The situation takes a turn with the visit of Chelsea, who harbors a resentment of her father's heavy-handed treatment and feels her mother didn't stand up for her.

Alexander Mitchell, Leslie Uggams and James Earl Jones
Alexander Mitchell, Leslie Uggams and James Earl Jones
But hard-hearted Norman turns out to be a pushover for Chelsea's beau's pre-teen son, Billy Ray (Alexander Mitchell), played with a panache that belies his years.

Most people will remember the movie version by Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, but their ghosts don't interfere. Jones' deadpan delivery is just the right leavening for his bad-tempered character. Uggams is a charmer; it's a pleasure to see her give as good as she gets and finally order, "Get it in gear, Norman." Under Leonard Foglia's spirited, clear direction, the play is never soupy.

Ray Kausen's design, a cabin with log stairs and rails, stone fireplace and wood table, overlooks the lake, which alternates in blues and reds. It's just the right backdrop to echo the shifts in this family's tempers.

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