Theatre Review: Chemistry Warm, Infectious in Dramaworks’ “On Golden Pond”

“They say the lake is dying, but I don’t believe it.”

This line, from the second act of “On Golden Pond,” is one of the nosiest in Ernest Thompson’s on-the-nose play about an elderly couple’s brush with mortality during an eventful summer in its Maine lake house. Symbolism this cumbersome is the stuff of CliffsNotes dreams, so it’s a minor miracle that in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ commendable production, we barely notice it. In director Paul Stancato’s confident control, everything feels colloquial, natural, even fresh, if perhaps overly gentle.

We have Stancato’s clever, out-of-the-box casting to thank. Pat Bowie and John Felix make for extraordinary partners as Ethel and Norman Thayer. The characters have been married for nearly 50 years, and it shows in their performances: They drive each other crazy, but we see what’s between the lines as well as what’s in them: the easy warmth of their interactions; the dry thrusts and parries of their repartee; the affections behind the snipes. We appear to be watching a lifetime of matrimonial commune, not the careful blocking of three weeks’ rehearsal.

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Norman Thayer is one of the theatre’s—and the cinema’s, as embodied by Henry Fonda in the Oscar-winning 1981 movie—most enduring curmudgeons. He’s a misanthrope whose incessant negativism and mordant humor is a defense against the alarm bells of decline: His memory loss is getting worse, and he takes medication for heart palpitations. Norman could be insufferable in a lesser actor’s hands, but Felix is genuinely witty, tempering his character’s abrasion with an exceptional comic delivery.

Bowie is as low-key as Felix is theatrical, grounding the house, and their marriage, in a practiced tranquility, keeping the trains running on time. The absolute love she displays for her husband is infectious, and is especially apparent in punctuating moments at the end of both acts. (Though it must be said: Katharine Hepburn owns the script’s famous term of endearment “you old poop;” other actresses just rent it.)

In preview articles about this production, much has already been made of Felix and Bowie’s novel mixed-race casting, and I won’t belabor the point except to laud its invisible success: Only once or twice do we notice the difference in skin color, as when Norman’s moderate, habitual racism surfaces in off-color remarks.

There isn’t much plot to speak of; Thompson’s play is driven by character and the deliberate accrual of detail. The Thayers’ routine is broken up only by occasional visits from the town postman (a delightful Paul Tei), a giggly simpleton with a thick New England accent and a handlebar moustache. A bit of narrative thrust eventually arrives in the form of Chelsea (embodied effortlessly by Karen Stephens), the Thayers’ estranged daughter, long scarred by her father’s perfectionism. She appears at the lake house with surprise guests in tow: her soon-to-be-husband Bill Ray (Jim Ballard) and his 15-year-old son, Billy (Casey Butler). She’ll be departing for a monthlong tour of Europe with Bill, leaving Billy with his soon-to-be-grandparents.

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The unexpected (but actually kind of expected) bonding between Norman and Billy begins an all-too-convenient healing pattern that consumes much of the second act, with wounds salted earlier in the play fully sewn up. Dramaworks can’t be faulted for a facile script, but the only visible misstep in the production—despite a few slippery line readings on opening night—is its absence of jolts. When Bowie slaps Stephens, it has all the ferocity of a caress, and we don’t buy it for a second. A character’s collapse, toward the play’s end, lacks the shocking immediacy it needs, and the object he’s clutching—a box of heavy china—falls to the ground soundlessly and limply.

The production’s charms, then, remain in the precise chemistry of the actors, the measured pacing and the immersive authenticity of its setting. Bill Clarke’s scenic design indeed conveys what Bill Ray calls the “lovely rusticity” of the Thayers’ cabin, with its collection of fishing gear, framed photos and quaint knickknacks. You can practically feel the splinters of the wood and the brick of the fireplace, and smell the naked pines looming just outside the back porch with its broken (and, in the second act, fixed!), screen door.

Just as important is Brad Pawlak’s sound design, surrounding the cabin with ruffling roosters, croaking frogs and sonorous birdsong—including the distinctive, otherworldly call of the loon—along with tone-setting songs from the characters’ youths piped between scenes. Donald Edmund Thomas’ lighting, so vital in a show whose golden hue is referenced in the title, evocatively blankets the set in various shades of sunlight, from dawn to dusk and everything in between.

“On Golden Pond” is an antique to be sure, but Dramaworks’ polish readies it for the Roadshow.

“On Golden Pond” runs through Feb. 25 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $55-$75. Call 561/514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.