Theater review: ‘On Golden Pond’ at Parkway Playhouse

Alesa Bryant and Michael Lilly star in "On Golden Pond". Photo by Britt Kaufmann
Alesa Bryant and Michael Lilly star in "On Golden Pond". Photo by Britt Kaufmann

Sometimes the very best stories simply drift along, serving as a delicate reflection of the ordinary. After all, for the most part, that is life. The poignant play On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson — just such a story — opens Parkway Playhouse’s 2017 season. It runs through Saturday, through May 27.

In the story, the Thayers have returned to their summer home, but this year is different. The crusty Norman (played by Michael Lilly) is having a hard time remembering, and his devoted wife Ethel (Alesa Bryant) is determined to resist the fact that they’ve entered their twilight-years. As Norman’s 80th birthday approaches, his daughter Chelsea (Jennifer Russ) decides to pay a long overdue visit, but the long-standing friction between father and daughter continues to cripple their relationship.

Lilly does exceptional work in a role that was Henry Fonda’s crowning achievement in the beloved 1981 Oscar-winning film version. Because of Lilly, this production has a freshness that isn’t as easy to attain as one might think. Fonda’s Norman was more ruthless, which served him well. Lilly’s Norman is less guarded and makes light of his character’s negativity. Like Fonda, Lilly draws from within. It’s moving to see actors convey an end-of-life perspective. Lilly amplifies the threat of dementia. In an outstanding scene where he returns lost and bewildered from picking strawberries, he brings the audience to tears.

The choice to make Ethel a replica of Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal was a risky decision. Bryant’s study on Hepburn’s mannerisms and famous transatlantic accent is a stunning achievement. But, ultimately, it’s only window dressing for the production. At first, the difference in Lilly’s realistic portrayal and Bryant’s homage to the past are not easy to adjust to. We eventually slip into the groove. Although Bryant has some handsome acting moments and she doesn’t waiver even a bit, it would’ve been deeply rewarding if she had removed her mask altogether.

Russ does pretty solid work here. She makes Chelsea look like an outcast in what use to be her home. The dysfunctional father/daughter relationship is a driving force of the play. It was so beautifully captured on film by Henry and Jane Fonda, who’s relationship closely mirrored that which they played. Some of us can certainly relate to similar heartache. Since Lilly’s performance is less bitter, this places more noticeable blame on Russ’ character. Considering the biting dialogue revolving around Norman’s anger that he’ll never have a grandchild, this was a feat. Chelsea leaves her boyfriend’s son Billy Ray (played by Turner Weinmeister) to spend the summer, but she resurfaces later. Then we truly feel her lifelong regret.

As a budding actor, Weinmeister does a nice job. Steve Elderbrock plays his father, Bill. He impresses when matching wits with Norman in a particularly great scene. A torn element to the production is that Elderbrock also plays the lake’s postman Charlie — a portrayal goes into caricature-zone and doesn’t work well. His overzealous laugh becomes agitating rather than funny.

Director Jeff Messer gets credit for enhancing the play’s humor and for coaxing one of the year’s most brilliant local performances from Lilly. The humor should’ve been completely stripped from the ending, though, as it deflated the play’s most enduring moment. However, in this production, the realization that the elderly Thayers will never return to Golden Pond is a true asset. Viewers, too, will never be able to visit a lake, hear the lonesome loons calling back, and not think of On Golden Pond. It’s that resonant.

WHAT: On Golden Pond
WHERE: Parkway Playhouse, 202 Green Mountain Drive, Burnsville, parkwayplayhouse.com 
WHEN: Through Saturday, May 27. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. $10-20

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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