Arts Listings

Altarena Stages Ernest Thompson’s ‘On Golden Pond’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday June 05, 2008 - 10:15:00 AM

At a reunion, after years, between father and grown daughter on his 80th birthday in the family cabin on a Maine lake: “Look at our little fat girl!” exclaims Dad, and his daughter bristles. He later tells her divorced dentist beau, “Ethel is her Mommy. I’m not her Daddy. I’m ... Norman.” 

So the old curmudgeon reveals his feelings by mordantly concealing them, as he’s deadpanned his way through the growing disorientation of age as well, acting out his diffidence with a show of being a bit too forthcoming, in On Golden Pond, as performed at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda, directed by Richard Robert Bunker. 

Many who know this chestnut of a generation ago are familiar with it through the adaptation playwright Ernest Thompson made for the Mark Rydell movie version (1981). Jane Fonda had optioned the play explicitly to costar with her father in what would be his final film appearance, paired also with Katherine Hepburn in their only collaboration as well. Such an occasion resulted in the themes of mortality and a rapprochement to the confrontations of the “Generation Gap” being brought to the fore, with the major reservoir of humor tapped in Dabney Coleman’s brilliantly over-the-top rendition of Bill Ray, the West Coast dentist, trying to parse niceties (and not-so-niceties) with his girlfriend’s crusty father. 

That’s all there onstage, but the Altarena production brings it back closer, though with the perspective of a quarter century, to the well-wrought commercial play that runs on tight comic rhythms, letting the pathos leak through the cracks to make the comedy bittersweet, while downplaying any heaviness. The story and character development progress quickly, though seem to go along leisurely enough. There are several jumps in time, and the potential heartwringer of a confrontation is deflected by a couple of dialogues, neither between estranged father and daughter. 

Tom Flynn plays Norman Thayer, retired English prof, as a deadpan put-on artist, deliberately misunderstanding what others say and exaggerating what he says, including “the usual prejudices”; a white collar curmudgeon after a decade of Archie Bunker. His colloquy with his daughter’s beau is his center ring performance. David Roberts’ Bill the dentist proves awkward but sympathetic, unwilling to play the fool, wanting to announce his existence and his intentions. And Julie Helms’ Ethel Thayer, “straight man” to her husband, shows a brief moment of salutary anger, followed by firm yet sympathetic admonition to her tense, wistful—but still game—daughter Chelsea, as portrayed by Naomi Didion Davis. 

Billy—Bill Ray, Jr.—is shown by Jose Montes to be a genial wiseguy, already friends with Chelsea and responsive to the Weisenheimer in Norman, enjoying his interlude with the doting old folks. 

But maybe the nicest vignette is the reunion between Chelsea and eccentric, chortling Down-East’er postman Charlie Martin (delivered perfectly by Jamie Olson), with Ethel as a gentle third wheel—their ongoing teenage summer romances long behind them, but not forgotten, they endeavor to reach out across the gap between them, where life’s taken each of them at middle age, just for a moment. Again, wistful, bittersweet, yet humorous. 

Summer ends, and the play with it, as further reunions are talked about by telephone—and more intimations of mortality are voiced. The old couple leaves the cabin, watching the loons they’ve seen on the lake depart too, their young ones fledged. Another summer gone, but this one has maybe crystalized all the rest. 



8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 21 at Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda. $17-$20.