Encore’s “On Golden Pond” finds fertile storytelling ground in realism

Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated strengths of live theater is the fact that seeing “reruns” of the same script put on in different locations by different companies with completely different casts and crews provides a nearly infinite number of variations on the same stories and characters.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I watched the Encore Musical Theatre Company’s rendition of Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond,” which I reviewed for Heritage Media’s now defunct local weeklies a few years ago.

Reading my old review brought back a lot of memories and impressions of John Peakes’ rendition of lead character Norman Thayer Jr., who is a father and husband nearing the end of his natural lifespan in not just years, but in health and mental capacity too.

Having seen Thomas D. Mahard’s version of Norman this past Thursday evening at the Encore, I feel like I am now able to more completely appreciate both men’s version of this affable old coot, or “poop,” as wife Ethel (Ellen Finch) calls him affectionately — and appropriately.

Peakes’ performance was touching in that I almost expected him to give a knowing wink and a smile through his mean-spirited geezer-antics throughout the Purple Rose production. It’s not a flaw in his acting. He was just very obviously that kind of guy as a real person, and it showed through in his performance as the character.

No offense to Mahard, but this was not a feature of his version of Norman. The Norman I saw earlier this week was a much more bitingly wry individual. In a way, Mahard’s Norman seemed more real to me. Peakes was wonderful at being intimate with the audience and letting them into the character he evoked. Mahard vividly showed me Norman in a still complete, although distant way. I don’t feel like I was as close to Norman this week as I was in 2012.

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And you know what — I’m fine with that. Given the nature of “On Golden Pond,” this in some ways feels more appropriate and even realistic. Aside from our closest childhood family, spouses, and children, the majority of the people we meet are never visible to us beyond the surface of who they are, or maybe just a bit below the surface. That’s just reality, and in that way the Encore folks told this story through the lens of realism, rather than idealism. I saw Norman and his dysfunctional family from an outsider’s perspective, and it was refreshing for someone who was brought in much closer to the characters previously.

As indicated above, “On Golden Pond” is a tale that we can all relate to. The Thayer family is incredibly screwed up and pock-marked in bitter disappointment and disagreements that, in a more perfect world, would have been addressed and moved beyond decades ago. These unresolved issues lend authenticity to the show overall, because we’re not living in a perfect world. These points also lend a sense of urgency to the story, as Norman’s days to reconcile and be reconciled with are literally numbered.

Aside from Mahard, the rest of the cast does a great job in their roles. Finch is a sweetheart as Ethel. In both versions of “Pond,” I often wondered what kind of dirt this old jerk had on her to keep her in their marriage putting up with his numerous personality issues.

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Keith Kalinowski returns for another showing at the Encore after his part in “Guys on Ice” this now (thankfully) passed winter. He plays Charlie — an old family friend and once-suitor of Norman’s daughter, Chelsea. As someone who has now seen two Charlies, I appreciated Kalinowski’s performance in this role. There’s a melancholic quality to the character of Charlie, who now literally haunts Golden Pond and the Thayer family’s lives as the areas mailman. He’s the quintessential townie who settles into a local niche while watching all of his childhood friends and loved-ones launch off towards bigger and better things, while sometimes reminiscing about the past in an almost forlorn way. Charlie’s a really sad character in some ways, and Kalinowski deftly executes his performance of him in the best way imaginable.

Todd St. George’s take on Billy Ray is also different and welcome. He does a good job of portraying his character as both urban and urbane. Billy Ray is not at-home in the wilderness of Golden Pond, and he finds the palpable dysfunction of the Thayer family equally disagreeable. There’s a moment in the show where St. George confronts Thayer, during which he does a wonderful job of becoming a menacing figure for that one single moment in the show. Since Billy Ray is kind of a foppish dandy most of the time, that moment really sticks out and could have easily fallen flat in the hands of a less skilled actor.

Sarah Burcon, as Chelsea, and John Carlson Jr. as Billy Ray Jr. execute their roles nicely, although I did have some difficulty hearing Carlson Jr. at a few points in the show. Burcon also has her own style. Her Chelsea is a bit less dramatic and doesn’t get as flustered as I remember Rhiannon Ragland getting in the role, but she still conveys hurt and disappointment at the way Norman has regarded and treated her throughout the years, which is the pivotal sticking point that the family must move beyond for the sake of enjoying the time that they have left together as a whole family.

The Encore’s iteration of “On Golden Pond” is just as touching and thought provoking as my first exposure to this particular story, which I understand was very popular in the 80’s to the extent that a major motion picture was made. Whether you were around for its Hollywood heyday or not, there are many themes and ideas in “Pond” that just about everyone I’ve ever gotten to know throughout my life should be able to relate to and think about. Most importantly, the Encore’s “Pond” is just a thoughtful and often funny show that will touch you for an evening.

The photos included with this review were taken by photographer Michelle Anliker.

For questions, story ideas, or if you just want to talk more about the show please email play reviewer Sean Dalton at seandalton@welovedexter.com.

For more details see the show preview published by the Encore’s Chuck Colby earlier in the week.

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2 Comments

  • Attended the preview performance of The Encores “On Golden Pond.” Memorable not only for its talented cast and production, but also the unscheduled interruption of a tornado warning, seconds before opening curtain! Didnt see the Purple Rose production but the favorable comparison by the reviewer is high praise indeed. For me, theatre doesn’t get any better than this!

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