On Golden Pond | Stray Dog Theatre

Bruce Collins was perfectly cast as Norman Thayer Jr., humorously portraying an old man in his twilight years. He delivered his lines as the dialogue of a man who had settled solidly into a rut he loved.


By Ernest Thompson
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Through March 26, 2006

I probably don’t need to tell you that On Golden Pond is a touching story, but Stray Dog Theatre’s production is especially moving, and a nice reminder that long-term marriages don’t always end up miserable and full of regrets. Some stories have happy endings, and it’s always nice to see one well done and not too sappy.

Norman and Ethel Thayer are in their golden years, with Norman turning 80 and Ethel 11 years behind him. As the play begins, they arrive at their summerhouse, on Golden Pond, where they’ve spent every summer for many years. The monotony of the summer is broken up by the arrival of their adult daughter, Chelsea, and her new boyfriend, Bill, a dentist. Bill’s 13-year-old son, Billy, comes, too, and stays with the Thayers while Chelsea and Bill spend a month traveling through Europe. The young boy’s presence brings new life to the summer home, especially for crotchety Norman.

The stage sat flat on the floor, with audience seating going right up to the edge of the painted wood floorboards. With a quilt over the couch, old pictures on the mantel and aging books on the bookshelves, the set beautifully captured the charming atmosphere of an old summer house, full of memories, but matter-of-fact about its history. In such an intimate environment, it was easy to feel part of the family, as if Golden Pond were one’s own familiar summer destination.

Bruce Collins was perfectly cast as Norman Thayer Jr., humorously portraying an old man in his twilight years. He delivered his lines—which could easily have slid in the caustic comments of a bitter man—as the dialogue of a man who had settled solidly into a rut he loved, one designed to keep those around him slightly off center until they figured him out—if they ever did. Diane Peterson, as Norman’s wife, Ethel, might have been anyone’s grandmother: funny, quirky, and worried about her husband, in a way that reminded me of my own grandmother. Peterson was heartbreakingly sweet when calling to the loons on the pond, and when she danced with her 65-year-old doll, showing she was young at heart. The two had great chemistry as a couple, as if they truly had been married for many years.

Kim Furlow, as the Thayer’s troubled daughter, Chelsea, brought humor to her role, although the transformative moments leading up to reconciliation with Norman felt a bit forced. Will Ledbetter, as her dentist boyfriend, easily handled the role of a man afraid of bears, but not afraid to stand up to Norman. Bill Lynch, as the mailman, Charlie Martin, had a changeable accent, sometimes sounding like a country bumpkin, other times sounding almost British, but he provided a nice contrast to Ledbetter, as a potential beau for Chelsea.

Matthew Johnson was quite enjoyable in the role of young Billy. Jokingly sparring with Norman and lovingly challenging Ethel, and, in the process, giving them the grandchild they’d never had, he deftly handled his role. On occasion, it was difficult to make out what he had said, especially when he blurted out slang to Norman, but the gist was always there, and the delivery mimicked the mumbling of many teenage boys.

Director Gary F. Bell, who is also the artistic director and president of Stray Dog Theatre, made good use of the black box space. At times, the characters stood longer than seemed natural, and whenever Ethel went to the kitchen, she seemed awfully far away. However, the distance worked metaphorically, showing how far away a loved one could be in the same house, in the same marriage, and also mirrored the estrangement Chelsea felt. Putting the audience on the same level as the stage brought a level of closeness not possible with a raised platform for the performers.

Ethel and Norman Thayer, Jr. were anything but distant from the audience. The entire cast managed to convey such closeness and familiarity, it was difficult to imagine the effect had been manufactured over weeks of rehearsal; it would be easier to believe they were an actual family, transferred to the stage for the audiences’ benefit.

A familiar story well told, Stray Dog Theatre’s production of On Golden Pond was comfortable, moving and thoroughly believable. At the end of the show, I didn’t want the summer to end, preferring instead to stay in the loving comfort of the house on Golden Pond.


Stray Dog Theatre presents Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond through March 26 at the Little Theatre (#1 Mark Twain Circle, Clayton). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors. Reservations can be made by calling 314-531-5923.

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