Fam­ily drama ruf­fles the sur­face On Golden Pond

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - LORI LIT­TLE­TON Spe­cial to The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor

You’d be for­given for be­liev­ing you’re re­lax­ing at the lake at the start of “On Golden Pond,” Vil­lage Theatre Wa­ter­down’s lat­est pro­duc­tion.

Jane Co­ryell’s bril­liant set wel­comes you into a cosy cot­tage nes­tled in a forested lake in Maine. Pic­tures — a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion they’re fam­ily mem­bers of the cast and crew — a fish and fish­ing tackle adorn the walls. Books, board games and puz­zles are stacked be­side a fire­place, await­ing a rainy day.

It’s idyl­lic. But, in theatre, you know all is not as it seems and, as you set­tle into your seat, you’re wait­ing for the other shoe to drop.

When we meet the can­tan­ker­ous Nor­man Thayer, de­light­fully por­trayed by Al French, we get an inkling about what’s go­ing on.

The plot is un­com­pli­cated but that doesn’t mean we’re deal­ing with light top­ics here. Ethel (Deb Da­ge­nais) and Nor­man have re­turned to Golden Pond. Their es­tranged daugh­ter, Chelsea, her fi­ancé and his son ar­rive for Nor­man’s 80th birthday. From the mo­ment she calls her fa­ther Nor­man, we know their past and tur­bu­lent re­la­tion­ship will be re­opened. Ernest Thomp­son’s script also tackles the chal­lenges an ag­ing cou­ple face through de­men­tia, feel­ings of use­less­ness and death.

French deftly guides us through Nor­man’s com­plex­i­ties. The beauty of his per­for­mance lies in his ex­pert de­liv­ery of lines with their two-pronged in­ten­tion — he’s funny and sharp-wit­ted, yet with each word, we know some­thing more sin­is­ter lurks be­neath.

Nor­man han­dles his frus­tra­tion at not re­mem­ber­ing his phone num­ber by get­ting the op­er­a­tor to call him back and it’s com­i­cal. But, re­ally, it’s not funny. His awk­ward­ness dur­ing his re­union with Chelsea could have a strong bit­ter bent, but not with French in the lead. He moves us through these crit­i­cal mo­ments with our sym­pa­thy for him in­tact.

Da­ge­nais as Ethel is ex­cel­lent. One look con­veys her worry at his fail­ing mem­ory or the love she still feels for him. She’s the glue hold­ing Nor­man to­gether,

as well as the cookie-bak­ing grand­mother ev­ery­one wants.

Joy Au­bin, Marie Dickie and Amelia Stein­bring keep us rugged with cos­tumes straight from the L.L. Bean cat­a­logue. “On Golden Pond” is time­less, its themes uni­ver­sal, so we (thank­fully) don’t need to be placed in the late-1970s, when it was writ­ten. It would be dis­rup­tive to have bell bot­toms, side­burns and polyester all over the place.

That’s why it’s jar­ring when Chelsea shows up wear­ing pumps and brown and gold pat­terned, wide-bot­tomed pants rem­i­nis­cent of that era. We ex­pect her to head to the disco. But she’s a Golden Pond reg­u­lar. She knows it’s ru­ral so why’s she dressed like this?

Daniel Oros, a Wa­ter­down new­comer and whose theatre cred­its in­clude high school pro­duc­tions, does a con­vinc­ing job as Billy Ray. The in­stant we meet the foul-mouthed teen, we know he and Nor­man will get along like a house on fire. Nor­man shows the boy how to fish, Billy shows the oc­to­ge­nar­ian life is worth liv­ing.

Kevin Grif­fiths, as Char­lie the post­man, pro­vides the right amount of comedic re­lief dur­ing mail de­liv­er­ies. His laugh is in­fec­tious and helps lift the mood when we’ve picked a tad too much at past scabs.

Sara Bur­dulis does a good job as Chelsea and Brad Forbes, as her fi­ancé Bill Ray, mixes just the right amount of meek with val­our when he stands up to Nor­man.

If the re­cent weather has you re­treat­ing to the con­fines of your house, ven­ture out to the lit­tle cot­tage in Wa­ter­down where you can hun­ker down for an en­joy­able pro­duc­tion show­cas­ing a fam­ily that over­comes past hurts for a fu­ture full of prom­ise.

PHOTOS BY LIND­SEY RY­DER, RY­DER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

Deb Da­ge­nais, Daniel Oros and Al French as Ethel, Billy and Nor­man in “On Golden Pond.” The mouthy teen and the cranky Nor­man find com­mon ground.

Deb De­ge­nais and Al French as Ethel and Nor­man Thayer aptly tackle the chal­lenges their ag­ing char­ac­ters face.

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