REVIEW: ON GOLDEN POND at Spotlight Theater

by Owen Niland

To call On Golden Pond saccharine and sentimental is, in a word, accurate.  It is a simple story of a small upper-class white family’s predicament.  The Thayer family – an aging cantankerous husband, long suffering wife, and estranged daughter – return for their 43rd year at the family’s lakeside cottage set on the eponymous pond.  An idyllic nostalgia-infused location, where personal challenges are, for the most part, neatly wrapped up in three acts over two hours.  Laughter through tears, connections re-forged, and life and loves reaffirmed.  But, to dismiss the story because of what it is, misses the point of this exercise.

The success of On Golden Pond, like many simple stories, is in the details.  The ability of the cast to welcome the audience into the characters minds – to make us care about them and their problems is paramount.  Equally as important is the set design’s ability to transport the audience into that sun dappled lakeside cottage, to feel its musty lived-in atmosphere, and to experience that environment’s nostalgia and sense of place.  Spotlight Theater’s production succeeds on the strength of its actors, but is unfortunately hamstrung by an uninspired scenic design.

Ken Street’s Norman Thayer, Jr. is a charmer, a retired professor nearing his 80th birthday, who, now devoid of classrooms full of undergrads to harass, aims his acerbic wit and gallows humor at his wife.  Mr. Street’s comic timing and bone-dry take on the character invites the audience to see both the wink in his eye and the pain he masks behind his jokes.  Norman’s anxiety over his advancing age and declining mental acumen are on display fully.

In wife Ethel Thayer, as played by Jan Cleveland, we have a woman who has long since given up taking her husband’s barbs seriously; charmingly distracting herself with the daily goings-about of summertime living – picking strawberries, keeping up the cottage, reminiscing with childhood toys, and chatting up the local postman.  Ms. Cleveland brings a robustness to Ethel, buoying both herself and grounding her husband’s less charming moments, while showing a vulnerable side to the character as she occasionally dips into nostalgia, recalling her childhood at the lake and cooing over the loons nesting along the shore.  

Molly Killoran’s take on daughter Chelsea, absent from the family summers for the past eight years, is stoic.  You see a fair amount of her father in Chelsea – a drive to hold onto the anger she feels over what she recalls as her rejection by Norman, never satisfied with Chelsea, as she could never be his son, and her anger over the fact Ethel chose her “son of a bitch” husband over her daughter.   All the while Chelsea strives to build a family of her own, and reconcile her differences from the past.

Rounding out the cast we have earnest and bright eyed Benji Dienstfrey as 13 year-old Billy Ray, Chelsea’s step-son, whose presence helps soften Norman’s curmudgeonly exterior; Luke Rahmsdorff-Terry as Charlie “Holy Mackinoley” Martin, attempting to bring a northeasterner’s sense to his performance with an on-again/off-again Maine accent; and Andy Anderson as Chelsea’s fiancée Bill Ray, a fairly one-note role whose scene with Norman is mostly entertaining as the old man twists this new interloper in knots over sleeping arrangements.

Where the production falters in in the execution of the design.  When you have a play so intently focused on the location, in this case Golden Pond itself, the audience wants to be drawn into the environment.  To feel the lived-in nature of the cottage, hear the sounds of the lake consistently – not just when the script calls for it, and, most importantly, to see the quality and color of the light change throughout the day.  That is, to have an immersive theatrical experience where the stage’s physical appearance builds a connection with the audience as much as the actors do with their commitment and emotional intensity.

Although the painted lake mural on the back of the set was a nice touch, so much more could have been gained by improving the set design.  Not every set needs to be dominated solely by a couch downstage center, with a raised platform upstage for the dining room.  Similarly, lighting must be more robust than simply off and on – I had a hard time figuring out what time of day the play was taking place with no visual cues to work from.  Where were the morning blues and evening reds one expects next to a lake?  

Somewhat unforgivably, the cement block back wall of the theater through the front door was not masked to give it an appearance of the outdoors.  Generally, I wouldn’t have been as challenged by this choice, but when so much of the action is focused on the front screen door, not paying attention to the details behind it was simply a mistake.

I note that director Bernie Cardell is a multiple hyphenate on this show, Artistic Director – Director – Set Designer.  Audiences know Bernie is a master when it comes to character, but perhaps here the production could have benefited from a seasoned scenic designer with an ability to translate a New England lakeside cottage aesthetic to the stage with stronger impact.

On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:00 through August 26th at the John Hand Theater, 7653 E 1st Place, Denver, Colorado 80230. Box Office: 720-530-4596


Photo Credit: Soular Radiant Photography


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