At Palm Beach Dramaworks, the cast of Ernest Thompson’s popular 1979 play, On Golden Pond, is multi-racial by design, but director Paul Scancato (Collected Stories) does not want you to focus on that aspect of the production.
“For me, it’s ultimately about telling the story of the Thayers,” he says. “The audience might initially think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be interracial,’ but as the play goes on, they’re going to let that go. They’re just going to see these people as people. We have such a fantastic cast, I’m confident that once we get through the first 10 minutes of the play, people are going to let that slip away and color won’t matter after that. For some people, maybe it will be about the fact that Norman is white and Ethel is black. My approach is these are simply two people.”
The play, which later became an Oscar-winning film starring Katharine Hepburn and Henry and Jane Fonda, concerns an elderly couple – Norman and Ethel Thayer – who have long enjoyed summers at a lakeside getaway. This year, they are visited by their estranged daughter Chelsea, her fiancé and his son from a previous marriage.
The cast, which includes such South Florida favorites as John Felix, Pat Bowie, Karen Stephens and Jim Ballard, was chosen, in part, to get away from the images from the movie.
“We didn’t want to be compared to the movie, even though we know we will be, because that’s the reference that most people have,” explains Stancato. “If we do our jobs correctly, we’ll introduce people to our world and soon we’ll be able to relieve them of the comparison.”
“If we doo our jobs, people aren’t going to spend their time looking and seeing who’s black and who’s not,” says Bowie, who last appeared at Dramaworks in A Raisin in the Sun. “They’ll get involved in the play, and pretty soon the other stuff falls away.”
The appeal of doing On Golden Pond, Bowie says, is, “Besides just loving the play, I love Ethel. There are very few plays that come along that have a wonderful arc from beginning to end of an older woman not playing decrepit and dying. She’s full of life. So I thought, ‘What a wonderful opportunity to play this person,’ vibrant and alive and interested in everything.”
Stancato was tapped to direct this play, he believes, because “I think I’m really good at excavating dysfunction onstage. I think I can find the pain and the funny, all in one breath. When Bill (Hayes, PBD’s producing artistic director) said that they wanted to color-blind cast this, that was really interesting for me, because this play takes on family themes, it takes on generational themes, it doesn’t take on race themes. And the Thayers represent what would become today’s modern family, which resonates with the culture we’re living in today.”
Norman and Ethel are so different, one wonders how they have stayed together for nearly half a century. “Ethel comes to this place and she’s reminded of the memories of her childhood, and it gives her a sense of renewal, that she’s not done living yet. She looks back on her life and she’s actually content, no regrets,” notes Stancato. “Whereas Norman has regrets. He’s losing his mind, his dignity is slipping away.
“He’s dealing with a lot of issues that, at his age, he really can’t go back and change. So he finds solace in the comfort of this house and its environment. He has her to bark at and she’s right there, taking it and loving on him. At the end of the day, we see how much she means to him and vice versa. But it doesn’t open with a love fest between these two. The first thing we’re thinking is ‘Why is she with this guy for 48 years?’ ”
If the play gets you reaching for a Kleenex, you will not be alone. “I would definitely say there’s a lot of sentimentality there,” concedes Stancato, “but also a lot of comedy. Norman’s such a prickly pear, they find their love in bickering at one another. Because the way that Ethel and Norman have their banter, we the audience enjoy the comedy of it. If people want to take out their hankies, it’s because it resonates with them in the moment.”
Through the specifics of the Thayers, Scancato believes that Thompson has written a play with universality. Theatergoers are “going to laugh a little bit, they’re going to relate. They’re going to see themselves in it. If you have a parent, you’re going to find somebody in this play to relate to. Ernest did craft a play that literally speaks to everybody. If you call yourself a human, you can relate to this play and these people.”
ON GOLDEN POND, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Feb. 2-25, $55-$75. 561-514-4042 or www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.