More so than most plays that have been adapted into movies, On Golden Pond has been under the shadow of its popular 1981 film. Not only did it win Oscars for stars Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, but the father-daughter conflict at the work’s core mirrored that of Fonda and his own daughter, Jane.
Perhaps that is why Palm Beach Dramaworks attempted to distance itself from the movie with interracial casting, giving the play a new look if not necessarily additional complexity. It remains a rather sentimental tale of a couple in its twilight years and one last effort by their daughter to break through to her irascible, but ultimately cuddly, old man.
Belying Dramaworks’ signature catchphrase, there’s not much to think about in this genial sitcom by Ernest Thompson. Instead, director Paul Stancato invites us to lean back and let this tale of family ties, the yearning for parental approval and the inevitability of aging wash over us, safe in the expectation that all conflicts will be resolved by the final curtain. Eugene O’Neill, it’s not.
Still, the West Palm Beach company has gathered a skilled handful of actors who invest considerable sincerity into the evening. Surely Dramaworks’ senior-skewed audience can see themselves or someone they know in Norman and Ethel Thayer, a retired college professor and his decade-younger wife. The curmudgeonly Norman (John Felix) is turning 80 and beginning to experience fits of senility, much to the concern of his long-suffering wife (Pat Bowie).
So she reaches out to their estranged daughter Chelsea (Karen Stephens) to fly in from California to the placid Maine retreat where the Thayers have summered for nearly half a century. Ethel’s hope is that she can nudge husband and daughter into a rapprochement before it is too late.
What Ethel did not figure on is Chelsea bringing along a boyfriend, a socially awkward dentist named Bill (Jim Ballard), and his 15-year-old son. They become the targets of Norman’s deadpan humor and, when Chelsea and Bill escape to Europe, Norman softens and grows closer to little Billy (Casey Butler), the son he longed to have.
The biracial casting – Ethel and Chelsea are African-American, the rest of the performers are white – is presumably intended to be colorblind. The only reference to race is when Norman declares that there are no blacks in Maine.
Bowie (PBD’s A Raisin in the Sun) again plays a put-upon matriarch, frustrated by Norman’s obstinance, yet still managing to convey a deep affection for him, even as she calls him an “old poop.” Felix, a late addition to the cast, is more mischievous than ill-tempered, though his indifference to Chelsea feels all too real. Compared to Norman, Chelsea is the adult in their confrontations, eager to clear the air between them but with little expectation of success.
Ballard has a very funny scene with Norman, an awkward man-to-man chat over the sleeping arrangements at the cabin. Butler is a refreshingly unmannered young actor and Paul Tei shows up a couple of times as the local postman with a machine gun laugh and a continuing affection for Chelsea.
Dramaworks rookie Bill Clarke provides a gorgeous set design, a wood and glass cabin that barely qualifies as rustic. Donald Edmund Thomas bathes it in golden hues, Brad Pawlak adds a countrified soundscape and Brian O’Keefe defines the characters through his costuming.
Presumably Dramaworks wanted to reach out to theatergoers who find Arcadia and its ilk too heady for them. Chances are On Golden Pond will prove popular, as it has in productions all around the globe, but its selection seems beneath the reputation of this Clematis Street company.
ON GOLDEN POND, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Feb. 25. $55-$75. 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.