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Review: 'On Golden Pond' loses some luster at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Correspondent

The final image in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ new production of Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” is a thing of poignant beauty.

Norman Thayer Jr. (John Felix), a retired English professor who has recently turned 80, is standing on the deck of his summer house in Maine. He and his wife, Ethel (Pat Bowie), are in the twilight of their lives and their long, happier-than-most marriage. They gaze through the tall trees to say farewell to their beloved lake, to the calling loons, to a place that has been their seasonal retreat for decades.

Will they return together for a 49th summer at Golden Pond? Norman is dealing with worsening memory issues and a heart that is threatening to fail. So who knows if this goodbye will be their last? The moment is both sorrowful and touching.

Yet what precedes it in director Paul Stancato’s staging of Thompson’s beloved, evergreen 1979 play only rarely hits that emotional sweet spot.

Norman’s worries over his memory lapses and his mortality, his cantankerous nature and his toxic relationship with the couple’s grown daughter, Chelsea (Karen Stephens), are key elements in the play. He’s a formidable, difficult man whose emotional armor is just starting to show weak spots. But as played by Felix, a very fine actor with multiple Carbonell Awards to his credit, this Norman is perhaps a bit rude but largely amiable.

Thus, when Stephens, another Carbonell winner and one of the region’s strongest actors, rails against Chelsea’s distant father for what she perceives as a lifetime of slights and emotional neglect, she appears to be overreacting, though her performance as a whole is strong and rich. The explosive tension between father and daughter just isn’t there.

Bowie’s Ethel is a loving wife, mother and mediator. But the radiant performer, who previously appeared at Dramaworks as the matriarch in “A Raisin in the Sun,” at this point doesn’t have all her lines down cold, so her occasional pauses and fumbles weaken certain moments. So, too, do the extended and repetitive bits of “amusing” physical business Stancato gives to Norman and Ethel.

Carbonell winners Paul Tei and Jim Ballard contribute engaging, memorable moments in their supporting roles. Tei plays Charlie Martin, the town’s motorboat mailman and Chelsea’s once-upon-a-time boyfriend. His Down East accent and eccentric laugh add a quirky warmth to the production.

Ballard plays dentist Bill Ray, Chelsea’s boyfriend and husband-to-be. He and Chelsea arrive with Bill’s 15-year-old California hipster wannabe son, Billy (Casey Butler), and it’s clear from Bill’s snazzy madras jacket and nervousness about the area’s wildlife (bears in particular) that he’s not the outdoorsy type. His scene with Felix, in which the dentist is trying to get Norman’s OK on the issue of Bill and Chelsea sleeping together during their visit, is masterfully played.

“On Golden Pond” has had thousands of productions since its Broadway debut nearly 40 years ago, and the 1981 movie version starring Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and his daughter Jane won Oscars for the two older actors. In a 2005 Broadway revival starring James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams, all the roles except Charlie were played by black actors. At Dramaworks, Ethel and Chelsea are played by actors of color, not a word of dialogue is altered, and the play continues to be a resonant study in love and regret.

The production, as noted, is visually lovely. Bill Clarke’s rustic, wood-dominant set, with its stone fireplace and neatly arranged fishing poles, looks move-in ready. Lighting designer Donald Edmund Thomas supplies a painterly succession of sunrises and sunsets, and Brad Pawlak contributes the sounds of arriving and departing boats and cars, plus the cries of the loons. Brian O’Keefe’s costumes for the elder Thayers suggest an older couple whose “casual” clothes are carefully chosen, while Chelsea’s wardrobe has more colorful flair.

At its best, “On Golden Pond” can be tender, touching and painful, because that’s how life unfolds. Dramaworks’ version would be better if, like the fish gliding through Norman and Ethel’s beloved pond, it had more bite.

“On Golden Pond” runs through Feb. 25 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. select Sundays, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $75 (students $15, Pay Your Age tickets for theatergoers 18-40). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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