Dorset Players float dreamily `On Golden Pond'

Venerable community troupe revels in Ernest Thompson's modern classic

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DORSET — Sometimes, you just forget, even the good things, and need a reminder.

I found myself thinking exactly that on opening night of the Dorset Players' current run of Ernest Thompson's 1979 play "On Golden Pond," directed by Richard Grip and produced by Kathy Penge.

The show went on to become even bigger just two years later on the silver screen, bagging Henry Fonda his only Academy award alongside the inimitable Katharine Hepburn, just months before his death.

That's the pedigree well known to worldwide audiences. But sitting in the shadows last Friday night, I was jarred by how such a simple story can be so powerfully poignant, and that in order to deliver those goods, you need a cadre of cast and crew hitting their marks in every way imaginable.

To this end, the Players outdid themselves.

An aging couple, Ethel and Norman Thayer (Donna Murray, Richard Maiori), are spending the summer at their home on Golden Pond, a lake in Maine. In the slow pace of life they are often joined by local yokel mailman Charlie (Jon Mathewson) for breakfast and coffee. Then, the couple are visited by daughter Chelsea (Elisabeth Hazleton), her fiance Bill (Paul Thompson) and his son Billy (Julian Pirie), all from Los Angeles.

The often turbulent relationship that Chelsea had with her father growing up resurfaces, and the struggles faced by a couple in the twilight years of a long marriage are brought to bear. To that end, director Grip had the cast primed and ready.

For his brief moments on stage, Mathewson did a nice rendition of simple-pleasures-rural mailman Charlie. Likewise, up and coming young Pirie capably brashed his way as Billy to smiles and nods from the audience, recalling the carefree joy of youth in a fun but momentous way.

Thompson was a revelation as Bill; I can't imagine a better piece of casting by Grip. Or a better fortune than having a Players newcomer so well suited to portray the young father's inherent goodness. Partnering with Thompson in that endeavor, and also taking on the role of wounded daughter, Hazleton's stage presence was beyond admirable; as Chelsea, she thrust that into our consciousness with emphatic passion and believable angst.

Much of that emotion overlapped with Maiori's Richard, whose physical stiffness and pain worked its way in relating to those of us who are aging, or who have cared for aging parents and other family members. Growing old is real, and has physical manifestations, but Maiori also doesn't allow us to forget that the aging and the young can still connect on visceral levels, each being so good for one another.

Finally, while Thompson's story as written tends to highlight much of its thematic pulse through Richard, it was Murray's Ethel who captivated our hearts.

Sporting her own Hepburn-esque aura and vibe, the lovely matriarch was riveting in her humor, in her peace making, in her consolation, in her timing, and in her empathy. If you want to know and feel love, then watch Murray in this production, and understand the mastery of understated, subtle affection that went beyond acting.

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Having never met Murray personally, my sense is that she is very much this way in her real life.

The show ran 2 hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission, and the Players' production chops once again were on full display.

Drew and Errol Hill's set once again design rivaled those of professional theaters. Costumes by Suzi Dorgeloh blended nicely into the Maine milieu. Lights by Angie Merwin hit their mark, while stage manager Maureen Chaffee, assisted by Caren McVicker with props by Trish Weisbrot, kept the production flow smooth. Producer Kathy Penge, backed by executive producer Lynne Worth, were logistical mavens extraordinaire.

One small production observation: window backdrops during analogous daytime hours should be lit; introduce the black only during evenings and nights. Darkened windows worked well in "Bus Stop" and other such nocturnal plays, but in "on Golden Pond," with its various times of day, some variety is required - if possible.

Interestingly, I saw the movie version of "On Golden Pond" in 1981, when I was still in college. Thirty-nine years later, the story's themes struck much closer to home.

As my father once told me: "Re-read the classics every decade, as they'll mean something different to you at each different stage of your life."

Dad couldn't have been more right about that, speaking to me last Friday in row L at the Dorset Playhouse, where his sage counsel found me again — as it seems to quite a bit these days — decades after his death.

His echo reminded me of gaining life experience, of growing older, and of respecting those who have much to teach and share. Often they're disregarded because of advanced age — something we do at our own peril.

The Dorset Players brought my father's words to life deep in my heart, and that's a gift this review will never repay. But the wisdom of experience must be shared while time still remains.

That time is this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Make the call to the Dorset, book your tickets, and then make the drive there to see this gem by the Players. You owe yourself that much, because in these tumultuous times, it's easy to forget the good things in life, and "On Golden Pond" is a human reminder we all can use.

"On Golden Pond," by Ernest Thompson, directed by Richard Grip and produced by Kathy Penge will run at 7:30 p.m., March 13 and 14, and at 2:00 p.m., March 15 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, in Dorset. Tickets and info: dorsetplayers.org, or 802-867-5777.

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA). E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @Telly Halkias


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