A pleasant trip to `Pond'

James Earl Jones portrays curmudgeon commendably

TheaterReview

October 05, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Say On Golden Pond, and you probably hear the sound of loons on a lake. But in the production at Washington's Kennedy Center, it's the telephone that grabs your attention.

That's because this new revival stars James Earl Jones, the voice of Verizon, whose first line on stage happens to be: "The phone works!"

Of course, Ernest Thompson's play isn't about telephones or loons. It's about family. Specifically, it's about the family of a retired English professor, his wife and their grown and estranged daughter.

In the 1981 film version, those roles were played by Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Fonda's real-life daughter, Jane. At the Kennedy Center, they're played by Jones, Leslie Uggams and Linda Powell, under Leonard Foglia's steady direction.

The African-American casting works because these are three fine actors who credibly convey their characters' deep and intricate familial relationship. But in and of itself, casting African-Americans as the family of Professor Norman Thayer adds no new insights to Thompson's script or characters.

The casting may help diversify theater audiences, and that is indisputably a good thing. It may even be enough to propel this sentimental chestnut to New York, where Jones' star billing alone is almost a guaranteed draw.

And Jones does a highly commendable job as curmudgeonly, fatalistic Henry. Henry's wife calls him a "tough old buzzard," and that's the way Jones plays him. His Henry is an opinionated, octogenarian bully who lords it over everyone and relishes spewing bigotry.

In the current production, there's a particular problem with the bigotry aspect. "Negroes" are included in the list of ethnic and racial groups Henry is pleased to say aren't native to the small Maine town where the Thayers are spending their 48th summer. It's a racial slur that needs to be changed, unless the play intends to move into the territory of black-on-black racism, which it gives no other indication of doing.

Aside from that, this is a performance in which an actor with a domineering presence inhabits a domineering role. But gratifyingly, Jones gives his fellow cast members the room they need.

Uggams didn't join the production until the final week of rehearsals, when she replaced Diahann Carroll, who injured her back. Despite her brief preparation, Uggams leaves no doubt about the tender, enduring bond Ethel Thayer shares with her exasperating husband. Indeed, this bond seems so snug, it's easy to believe that, when she was growing up, daughter Chelsea felt ignored by her mother.

Powell - whose credits include several roles at Baltimore's Center Stage - plays Chelsea as a woman who inherited her father's obstinacy along her mother's sweet temperament. The sweetness, however, registers more strongly than the stubborness, lessening some of the impact of her eventual reconciliation with her father.

Granted, by then Norman Thayer has thawed considerably, too, thanks to the influence of Chelsea's boyfriend's 13-year-old son, Billy. Alexander Mitchell is so splendidly fresh as this outspoken, big-hearted boy, it's no wonder he finds the soft spot in Norman's hard heart.

And, as Billy's father, Peter Francis James (another Center Stage alum) admirably holds his own in his one-on-one scene with Jones. The bristling tensions and flashes of comic relief make this one of the production's most effective exchanges.

Ray Klausen's set design features a picture-postcard backdrop, atmospherically lighted by designer Brian Nason. The combination makes the Thayers' rustic vacation property look like the cover of a slick travel brochure.

In a way, this trip to Golden Pond is like a mini-vacation. It's a pleasant enough trip, but one that is ultimately more diverting than enlightening.

On Golden Pond

Where: Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 17

Tickets: $25-$78

Call: 800-444-1324

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