Performances brighten 'Golden Pond' Play: Despite Colonial Players' best efforts, the screen version works better than the stage presentation.

November 05, 1998|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Let's call Colonial Players' production of "On Golden Pond" a mixed success, because the acting is better than the play.

Playwright Ernest Thompson's script creates characters who are far more interesting for what goes unspoken than they are verbally. And that creates a big problem on the stage, as you quickly find out in the interminable opening scene.

"Golden Pond" is the exception to the rule that 99 times out of a hundred a play on the stage is better than anything Hollywood dishes out after the fact.

This show works much better on the screen, where the camera can hold the image and search behind the eyes of Norman, the crusty old professor with angina, a failing memory and an intense fear of what's to come, and Ethel, his wife, whose love of life's simple joys is matched by her deep affection for the declining "knight in shining armor" she married.

It didn't hurt that Tinseltown booked Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn for those roles, but Colonial does pretty well in that department.

I enjoyed Robert Nelson's Norman immensely. His fears come through along with his virtues, and he's suitably dyspeptic when acting the old coot. (Asked how he feels having turned 80, he growls, "Twice as bad as I did when I turned 40.")

When his daughter enters the story with her stepson and emotional baggage in tow, Nelson's Norman is palpably energized, even as he continues to tweak his child's psyche with his curmudgeonly ways. Alas, when the rapprochement finally happens, it's done in a one-sided conversation over the phone. Once again, hurrah for Hollywood.

Loraine Shaw's portrayal of Ethel is gracious and elegantly restrained. She's likable and, at times, quite touching. The joy she continues to take in the berries, loons and sunsets of northern Maine in her 48th summer on Golden Pond is made profoundly real, as is her love for her husband and their difficult daughter, who keeps her distance lest the wounds of childhood be reopened by her father's gruffness.

Only once did Shaw's portrayal leave me, and that was when she panicked during Norman's angina episode. The character would be less whiny, stronger and angrier as she cajoles and cheers Norman back to coronary stasis.

Secondary players are all adept, especially Debbie Barber, who is feisty, funny and more than a little sad as Chelsea, the prodigal daughter.

Young Stephen Bell of Silver Spring makes a nice Colonial debut as young Billy Ray, the new grandchild whose youthful presence does so much to shake Norman out of the doldrums of old age.

Harry Burgess sports a pretty good Maine accent as the affable postman still carrying a torch for Chelsea, and Mac Bogert is fun to watch as the ill-at-ease dentist turned son-in-law.

The silver screen it ain't, but these folks make Golden Pond a touching place to visit nevertheless.

"On Golden Pond" runs weekends through Nov. 21 at the theater on East Street in Annapolis. Information: 410-268-7373.

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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