On Golden Pond, playing only this weekend at Central School, is a heart breaking examination of the art of dying. This is a must see performance which, unfortunately, only goes through this weekend. Get tickets at K.C. Productions
WARNING: Some spoilers.
On Golden Pond tells the story of an elderly couple, Ethel and Norman Thayer, performed with chemistry and credibility by Paula McCain and Randy Partin. The Thayers, given Norman’s deteriorating health, are spending what is likely the last of many summers together at their cabin on Golden Pond, a lake replete with loons and bordered by wild strawberries. Sarah Broussard tackles the challenging role of Chelsea, the Thayer’s unhappy daughter, with skill. Matt Dye is charming and funny as Bill, Chelsea’s boyfriend, bringing a sensible lightheartedness to a somber reality. Brahnsen Lopez is Charlie the quirky and adorable childhood friend of Chelsea. And Zachary Benoit, as Bill’s son Billy, who stays with the Thayers for a month, creates a natural bond with Partin’s Norman as his pseudo-grandson.
The stage is an idealized image of the perfect cabin. Homey, lived in, perhaps even a bit cluttered but warm and friendly with every amenity one could want for a lazy summer fishing camp. And Keith Chamberlain directs this production with style and an eye to keeping this inherently slow paced tale moving in a fascinating interpersonal dance.
Ernest Thompson, the author of On Golden Pond, has been "eating out" on this play for almost 40 years, earning money from it as a stage play, then a movie, followed by revivals, even one in 2001 whimsically re-pairing The Sound of Music duo Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Thompson even now lives by the lake where the movie was filmed and gives boat tours. With just a little evaluation it quickly becomes pretty obvious this story is biographical.
According to Kelli Allred, PhD, writing for the Southern Utah University Shakespeare Festival, "A self-proclaimed nonbeliever, [Ernest] Thompson writes about lost souls who do not have ‘the luxury of turning to diety,’ so his characters must rely upon one another." In other words, as Thompson does not believe in God, he creates characters who muddle through by depending exclusively on each other. But those characters are ultimately doomed in On Golden Pond to betray that trust, by active neglect of each other, flippant remarks of hurtful rejection, or abandonment by death itself.
During the play, I was often reminded of Satre’s vision of Hell in No Exit, wherein characters are forced to stay in a room and torment each other with reminiscences of regrets, petty harpings and constant obsession with trivialities. Similarly, the characters in On Golden Pond treat each other to their own versions of Hell. Although free to leave the actual cabin, the characters find the idyllic appearing cabin is a snare net in which the Thayers are trapped either mentally or, in the case of Norman, too frightened by his own deteriorating mental faculties to wander far.
Examples of their self-imposed Hell are rife: Norman repeatedly references death despite the growing distress of his wife, Ethel. Ethel obsesses over loons and strawberries, glossing over their dismal parenting of Chelsea and deliberately ignoring the encroaching dementia and frailty of Norman. As for Chelsea, there is a theater expression immortalized as the title of a play by Elaine Mae: Enter Laughing. With Chelsea it is "enter crying". She drops the temperature every time she responds or is even in proximity to her father. Frowning, hunchbacked, self-admittedly childish, crying and bitter she does not see or communicate with her parents for months on end, and then only to rehash 30 year old hurts.
The author, Ernest Thompson, seems to indicate it is a biography of his own, apparently, dysfunctional relationship with his parents, whose names, Theron and Ester Thompson, echo those of his surrogate family, Norman and Ethel Thayer. Thompson’s father, like Norman, was a school teacher, and Thompson even today, lives quite near the lake where On Golden Pond was filmed. His voice is given to the self-absorbed and depressed Chelsea, the Thayers’ daughter, permanently locked into her own self view as a neglected, underappreciated, fat disappointment. Despite her own adult accomplishments, she acts out her chronic dismay with her father in a string of shallow and unhappy relationships and a dismissal of child bearing.
The spectre of finality sits heavily upon them as 80 year old Norman teases his wife in a constant patter of comments about his own coming demise: comparing himself to her 60 year old doll who might some day either fall or decide to dive into the fireplace, glibly quip how he might not make it all the way down to the end of the driveway, and suggest how his ashes could be sprinkled over her flower garden. Most of the time these observations seem only to torment his wife or perhaps help her face the eventuality she seems determined to avoid thinking about – his departure. But other times his distress is genuine, as in when he gets lost on a familiar path and scurries back to be in the one place he feels safe – by his beloved Ethel.
It is not until the entry of Bill and his son Billy – representatives of the family, wherein the play takes a lighter and more fulfilling turn. Thompson places great emphasis on the point that Chelsea is an only child – grown distant to her parents, an emptiness that is reflected in the preternaturally quiet cabin. Bill and Billy bring a semblance of family which temporarily reignites and renews a certain underlying attentiveness and life in Norman as he takes the boy daily fishing.
Meanwhile, while rejecting a belief in God, Thompson hampers his characters with a formless deistic philosophy. Ethel goes on often about the loons and flowers, as though trying to create a veneer over the fractures in her family. She and Chelsea reminisce about a woodsy campfire group from Chelsea’s youth, associated with an annoying childish song, which repetition stresses the patience of even the easy going Charlie. This emphasis on an idealized artificial relationship with nature suggests that Thompson has a certain deistic belief system – not in God but a ubiquitous "god-ness" in everything – which he substitutes for any truly analytical spiritual life. This semi-spirituality ultimate both proves unsatisfying to the characters and provides no comfort in the moments of crisis which happen during the course of the play. There is no appeal to God and the only references to Him are made as angry interjections but never in prayer.
And although Thompson makes it clear that he does not have any faith in God, neither does he have anything to fill the void which that a-theism creates.
Norman and Ethel demonstrate a philosophy of situational ethics as they shrug their shoulders in a laissez faire attitude when asked by Bill if he and Chelsea, while still unmarried, could sleep together in the cabin. Norman responds with a crude banter which makes it difficult to tell whether he genuinely disapproves or just enjoys shocking his guest, but makes no real effort to establish or enforce any respectful guidelines.
Thompson draws a brilliant portrait of what it is like for someone to face the eventuality of one’s earthly death without the spiritual awareness of a Divine Creator, an immortal soul or a concept of eternity. What is it like for people who think this is all there is? The result for the elderly Thayer couple is one unending day of board (bored) games, Chelsea’s purposeless and childless drifting through relationships, and constant acrimony.
Only when the prospect of acting for the sake of another – for the nurturing of Bill’s son Billy – do they all come together briefly, like cold travelers around a warm fireplace. And for a while they engage with constructive purpose in the world and with each other, healing emotional riffs and coming to an understanding.
It is said: If you can’t be a good example, provide a horrible warning. Norman and Ethel while away their last few days in endless games of Parchessi, listening to Norman’s acerbic "witticisms" and deflecting Chelsea’s angry reproachfulness. Chelsea only finds peace in separation from the shallow and unfulfilling summer cabin life to create a family with Bill and Billy. Near the end, when finally at peace in a real home, Chelsea elicits from her parents a promise we know they will not keep to join her family. Instead, the Thayers literally walk off into the sunset, alone, fully aware they will never come back – death throwing them out of the self-defined Paradise to which they have limited themselves, without hope or prospect of immortality. Neither seeking nor finding any concept of eternity or genuine spirituality, the best Norman can offer Ethel is a passive and bland acceptance of the inevitability of separation, death and oblivion.
The K.C. Productions performance of On Golden Pond deftly and dramatically demonstrates the desperate resignation and shallow accomplishments of facing one’s death without spiritual discernment or faith. Like Satre’s characters they have created their own Hell to which, in the end, they willingly exit.