Jennifer Bussey

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Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature and is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she explores the tense relationship between Norman and his daughter, Chelsea, in On Golden Pond.

Thompson's play On Golden Pond portrays various kinds of family relationships, some healthy and some not. Norman and Ethel Thayer have been married for almost fifty years, and their marriage represents enduring love and respect. Their daughter, Chelsea, gets married in the course of the play, and her union represents the hope of a new marriage. Norman's relationship to Chelsea's new stepson is both friendly and grandfatherly. All of these relationships are generally healthy and satisfying, but Norman's relationship with Chelsea is an altogether different story. This is the only relationship in On Golden Pond that is hurtful and destructive.

From the first words they say about each other in the play, Norman and Chelsea communicate that their relationship is fraught with tension. Norman barely acknowledges Chelsea's pictures on the mantel in the lake home by Golden Pond, and the few comments he makes are negative. In the first act, he notices a picture and says, "Here's Chelsea on the swim team at school. She wasn't exactly thin." Ethel reminds him that Chelsea joined the team only to please him. Norman's tendency is to find something to criticize about Chelsea, rather than to see a picture of his daughter doing something for the sole purpose of winning his approval. When Chelsea arrives for a visit at the lake house, she calls Ethel "Mommy," and she calls Norman "Norman." When Bill, Chelsea's boyfriend, asks Norman about it, he merely states enigmatically that there are reasons for it. Chelsea's attitude toward Norman is courteous but devoid of emotion, at least in his presence. The reader will notice that Ethel quietly defends Chelsea and Norman to each other and that she obviously wishes that they would make amends. Chelsea is guilty of putting Ethel in the middle of her conflict with her father, as when she asks her mother privately about leaving Billy at the lake house for a month. This kind of behavior shows the audience that Chelsea is not willing to address her father directly about potentially volatile subjects, much less about the root of their problem.

In her conversation with her mother in the first scene of act 2, Chelsea reveals the source of her problems with her father. As a child and a teenager, Chelsea always felt that she did not measure up to her father's expectations. She chased after his approval by joining the diving team and going fishing with him, but her heart was in neither activity. The sting of his criticism has not healed after all these years. As she puts it, "He always makes me feel like I've got my shoes on the wrong feet." She also tells Ethel that being at the lake house still makes her feel like "a little fat girl." Chelsea feels as if she is so far removed from what her father wanted that she wonders if he really wanted a son. When she returns from Europe to pick up Billy and finds him out fishing with Norman, she remarks, "Billy reminds me of myself out there, way back when. Except I think he makes a better son than I did."

Chelsea and Norman are very similar in their passive-aggressive way of dealing with their broken relationship. They both make snide remarks and act uninterested. Even when Chelsea vents her anger about Norman's overbearing parenting style and her...

(This entire section contains 1995 words.)

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mother's failure to do anything about it, she does so in front of Ethel, not Norman. This scene reveals, however, how angry Chelsea still is about her childhood. Norman appears to be apathetic or, at most, inconvenienced, but his feelings lack the passion that Chelsea's outburst expresses. When she finally talks to him, she tells him that she is sorry, adding, "We've been mad at each other for too long." He is slightly confused, stating that he just thought they did not like each other. Again, their experiences of the relationship are completely different, which makes reconciliation even more difficult.

Thompson could have used a flashback technique to show the audience exactly what Norman was like when Chelsea was a child, but he seems to have known that it would not be necessary. Although the audience can assume that Chelsea's memories are colored by her emotional pain, the audience can also suppose that the younger Norman was probably at least as insensitive and sarcastic as the older Norman is. The objective truth about who was wrong, and how wrong he or she was, is irrelevant. The relationship between Norman and Chelsea is defined by their hurt, anger, and indifference toward each other.

The unlikely friendship between Norman and Billy, Bill's son, has a great deal of relevance to the difficult relationship between Norman and Chelsea. It reveals that Norman is capable of change, even though he is not a man who embraces it, as evidenced by his well-worn hats, familiar books, and tendency toward routine. So when Billy arrives unannounced, he is not pleased at the prospect of hosting a teenager. When Billy shows that he can handle, as well as return, Norman's sarcasm and irreverent attitude, he wins Norman over. Norman senses in this thirteen-year-old boy, of all people, a kindred spirit. He warms up to Billy in short order, and, when given the chance to have him stay at the lake house for a whole month, he agrees without hesitation. From what is known about Norman, his agreeable attitude is unexpected. His decision is the turning point in the play.

Norman's willingness to watch Billy for a month while Chelsea and Bill go to Europe is fascinating. That Ethel wants to have the boy stay with them is no surprise at all, but Norman is a different story. Because he is not emotionally demonstrative or expressive, one is compelled to consider why he is so willing to embrace this major change in his summer plans. There are three possibilities. First, Norman, like Ethel, may genuinely want to help Chelsea. This is her chance to go to Europe with the man she loves and to pursue long-term happiness. As it happens, she and Bill get married in Europe. Perhaps Norman wants to do something to help Chelsea and support her chance for stability and happiness, but, because of their relationship, he feels that he can make only an indirect gesture. If that is the case, then agreeing to host Billy at the lake house accomplishes it. The second possibility is that Norman really likes the boy and feels that spending time with him will not be a burden at all. Billy is bright, receptive, and spunky. This means that he will probably be teachable and enliven the lake house during his stay. Norman may recognize a second chance to do a better job with a child than he did with Chelsea. Second chances are rare and unexpected; in Norman's fatalistic state of mind, it is too valuable to let pass.

Billy tells Ethel that sometimes when he and Norman are fishing, Norman calls him by Chelsea's name. Ethel explains that Billy probably just reminds Norman of Chelsea, but there is more that she is not telling him. On one hand, Norman is losing his memory and becoming easily confused. On the other, he may be trying to do a better job of being a father to Chelsea through Billy. In a sense, Norman is proving to himself that he now knows how to be a better father, even though it is too late to take Chelsea fishing. It may be healing for him to feel as if he is being a good father to Chelsea.

The third possibility is that Norman wants to draw Chelsea closer to him by being a grandfather to Billy. After the frank discussion with Chelsea's boyfriend, Norman could reasonably assume that Bill is going to marry his daughter. That would make Chelsea a mother for the first time in her life, at the age of forty-two. And it would make Norman a grandfather at last, at the age of eighty. The play takes place during the summer that Norman worries may be his last (or at least the last one with all his faculties), so being a grandfather to Billy for himself and for the sake of Chelsea would be a gratifying experience.

Another way in which Billy's friendship with Norman is relevant to Chelsea's relationship with Norman is that it brings about their reconciliation. After all, Chelsea has to come back to the lake house to get Billy, and it is during this visit that she finally tells Norman that she wants the relationship to be better. Her motivation for trying to make amends with her father, however, is less clear. She seems a bit more mature when she returns from Europe, presumably because her relationship with Bill requires more maturity from her. She has found love with Bill, and she has also found a family. At the age of forty-two, it is time for her to learn what it is to be a parent. This realization, along with the realization that Norman has already forged a grandfatherly bond with Billy, leads her to make an effort to repair her relationship with Norman. Clearly, she is still angry (as evidenced by her tirade in front of her mother), but she has come to the end of that part of her life when she can justify her anger with blame. She realizes that living far away from her parents will no longer be a good enough reason not to see her father. She has a stepson who needs a family and likes hers.

The reconciliation scene is a bit awkward, but then so are the characters. Chelsea struggles to express herself to her father in a way that will enable him to see her point of view, but he is emotionally detached, as he always has been. She characterizes their relationship in one way, and he characterizes it in another. It is important to note that the reason Chelsea's offer of reconciliation is accepted by Norman is that she does not attack him with her anger and put him on the defensive. Instead, she adopts his calm disposition (probably unknowingly) in her approach, making him more receptive to what she has to say. Given the years of tension, the brevity of this scene is a bit surprising and even unsatisfying. But it is consistent with Norman's way of doing things, and so it is believable. He and Chelsea are not sure what their new relationship will mean to them, but they know it will be friendlier. Thompson shows that Norman and Chelsea struggle a bit to become accustomed to the new arrangement; when she calls at the end of the summer, her conversation with her mother comes much easier to her than the one with her father. Still, they are working to overcome the awkwardness in the interest of the relationship.

The problem of strained relationships between parents and their adult children is very common, and Thompson's handling of it is believable and hopeful. Norman and Chelsea are alike in many ways, and they do love each other, but the years of destructive patterns have weathered away their motivation to treat each other better. This play is about coming to terms with change—aging, mental deterioration, marriage, the possibility of saying goodbye, and entering into a family. Both Norman and Chelsea face change, and these changes make them willing to find each other's humanity and see whether they can discover a loving father-daughter relationship in the process. Thompson gives a message of encouragement that it is never too late to make a significant relationship right.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on On Golden Pond, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Bryan Aubrey

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Aubrey holds a PhD in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he discusses the changes made to the play in the 1981 movie version.

Since its first appearance as a play on Broadway in 1978, On Golden Pond has been made into a film, a television show, and a musical as well as being revived on Broadway, with some dialogue rewritten, in 2005. In a review of the revival in Variety, Thompson was quoted as saying that none of these versions were very different from each other. While this is certainly true in terms of the major themes and characters, readers of the play (or those fortunate enough to be able to see a live theater performance) might note a few significant differences between the play and the 1981 movie version starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda. Thompson, who wrote the screenplay for the film, used the opportunity to sharpen the dramatic conflicts and resolutions to meet the expectations of a mass audience accustomed to the conventions of Hollywood.

Translating a play into a movie is not as simple a task as it might at first appear. A film appeals more to the eye than to the ear, so the visual element in a movie is as important as the spoken word, and often even more so, whereas in a play, language dominates. There are a number of scenes (or sequences, to use the language of film) in the movie version of On Golden Pond that exploit the visual opportunities of the medium, such as when young Billy Ray, in a purely visual scene, goes out on his own and joyfully drives the Thayers's boat in large circles and figure eights all over the lake; or the action sequence that takes place in Purgatory Cove, which was created especially for the movie; or Chelsea's backflip from the diving board near the end, which adds a visual dimension, not present in the play, to her reconciliation with her father. Another visual symbol is the second shot in the movie's opening sequence, which shows in long shot (a shot taken from a considerable distance) the sun setting over Golden Pond, the water shimmering in the golden light. This is a perfect metaphor for the relationship between Norman and Ethel Thayer, which has stood firm for a long day of forty-eight years and is now, because of Norman's age and ill health, probably approaching its end. A similar shot of a sunset on Golden Pond returns at the end of the film, just as the credits begin to roll. It effectively frames the film as a tale of human lives in the "sunset" years. It is a touching, if sometimes sentimental story, which shows that even near the end of life, there are still possibilities for growth and change and the healing of old hurts. It is never too late.

The character who is most in need of change is also the one who appears to be the least inclined to make the effort that change requires. This, of course, is Norman. The opening scene of both play and film brings out the contrast between Norman and Ethel in this respect. Ethel is fully alive, open to the beauty of nature on Golden Pond, and still able to make new friends. She may be in her late sixties, but she has lost none of her zest for life. Norman, the old curmudgeon, is locked into his small, rigid world, verbally sparring with Ethel while frequently giving expression to his morbid thoughts about approaching death. Many of his comments in this respect are meant to be facetious, a way to keep his fears at bay. Still, to the devoted Ethel, they are not funny, although she understands her husband well and either ignores his provocations or gives as good as she gets.

In the play, much of the dialogue in the first scene conveys memories and reminiscences—Charlie as a boy; Elmer, the doll that Ethel has had since she was four—that express how long the Thayers have been together and how much of their lives is in the past. In the film, this dialogue is cut, the director Mike Rydall opting instead for a couple of telling shots of Norman peering at photographs, the first of which is of himself as a younger man. (Beside it is a newspaper clipping dated 1966, with the headline "Professor Thayer Retires.") The second is of himself and Ethel when they were much younger. It seems that the past stretches back as far as memory can reach, but the future beckons hardly at all. Although, in many ways, On Golden Pond is a light, sentimental play and film, the shadow of approaching death hangs over it.

This theme is presented even more strikingly in the film than in the play. The film adds a scene in which Norman and Ethel refuel their boat, and one of the teenagers at the gas station makes fun of Norman's old age. Norman berates them both in a poignant outburst that conveys the infirmities and indignities of age: "You think it's funny being old? My whole goddam body's fallin' apart. Sometimes I can't even go to the bathroom when I want to." The film also shows directly the frightening incident that the play can only describe—when Ethel sends Norman out to the woods to pick strawberries, and he quickly becomes disoriented and has to come home. Quick cuts and rapidly shifting camera angles suggest his confusion and fear. At one point, a low angle shot looks up at a big tree with a gnarled pattern that resembles a face. The effect is menacing and even spooky, and the whole sequence reduces the gruff, combative Norman to a frightened and frail old man.

Old age may be advancing rapidly, but Norman has unfinished business to take care of before he dies. Unfortunately, he does not realize this until the issue is forced upon him. The issue, of course, is his failed relationship with Chelsea and the anger and frustration that she feels on account of it. In the film, Chelsea expresses her anger at her father in a far more direct, overt manner—if only to her mother—than she does in the play, and Norman is also supplied with a reason to be angry with her, which he does not have in the play.

In the screen version, the moment when Chelsea arrives and awkwardly hugs Norman is a telling one. In the play, the stage directions state that Norman "hesitates only the briefest instant" before hugging Chelsea, but Henry Fonda's Norman actually flinches as Chelsea goes to kiss him, pulling his head back before recovering himself and responding to her. This is clearly a man who is deeply uncomfortable with receiving affection from his daughter, perhaps from anyone except his wife. He then alienates Chelsea immediately with his comment about "this little fat girl." He does not mean it unkindly, but Chelsea (Jane Fonda in the movie) is not fat, and she is humiliated by this thoughtless reference to her younger self. It is as if the relationship between them has frozen in time. Although she is now forty-two years old, her father still makes her feel like a child, and an unwanted child at that, since the clear implication is that Norman would have preferred to have had a son rather than a daughter.

Given the emotional impasse between them, it is not surprising that Chelsea seldom visits her parents, and it is this that supplies Norman with his resentment toward his daughter. The filmmakers obviously thought that Norman should have a grievance against Chelsea to match hers against him, so lines not in the play are added to the movie dialogue. "I'm frankly surprised Chelsea could find the way," Norman says sarcastically, after Bill Ray comments on how pleased he is that Chelsea has brought him and Billy to Golden Pond. Just in case anyone in the audience misses the point, Norman then quizzes Bill Ray about whether he visits his own parents. None of this dialogue is in the play. For her part, when Chelsea talks to Ethel, she explodes in anger and resentment, several times using profanities to describe her father, none of which occurs in the play. She goes so far that Ethel is forced to slap her face and rebuke her, and this also takes place only in the screen version.

The effect of all these changes in the film version is to sharpen the tensions all round, the purpose being to set up more effectively the final emotional reconciliation. In real life, of course, such longstanding blocks and resentments in family relationships are hard to overcome, but in a Hollywood movie, usually all it takes is some straight talking and a hug or two for everything to be magically transformed. And so it is with Norman and Chelsea. Chelsea tells him that it is time that they had a real father-daughter relationship; she finally manages the backflip that she could not do to please him as a child; he says what she had always wanted to hear, that it does not matter whether she can do the backflip; and, in a final embrace, she calls him Dad rather than Norman. The reconciliation between father and daughter is therefore more smooth and complete (if more sentimental and less convincing) in the film than in the play. In the play, Chelsea and Norman do make progress but remain somewhat wary of each other, and the more oblique dialogue leaves much to the interpretation of director and actors.

Another theme that is expanded on the screen, when compared with the stage, is the relationship between Norman and Billy. This is largely because film gives the opportunity to show their fishing expeditions on the lake directly, whereas onstage they can only be described. The theme is hardly an original one. Young people reinvigorate tired old hearts in works as diverse as the British novelist George Eliot's Silas Marner (1861), in which an old miser finds new purpose in life when he adopts an orphaned two-year-old girl, and the movie Second-hand Lions (2003), starring Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, in which a fourteen-year-old boy stays for the summer on the Texas farm of his two eccentric great-uncles and duly softens them up with his youthful innocence. This is close to what happens in On Golden Pond, as Norman, for a short while, gets the son he always secretly wanted, and Billy, an initially disgruntled and sometimes rude young teenager who is angry at being left behind by his parents when they go to Europe, grows affectionate toward the cantankerous old man who becomes his fishing companion. Billy's comment "I'll miss you," made after Norman says that he will not be around much longer, typifies the sentimental way in which the film develops the relationship. (That line is not in the play.)

If, on occasion, the film provides enough Hollywood-style syrup to fill up Golden Pond, it also has its moments, as the play does, of insight, wisdom, and genuine feeling. Indeed, it would be hard not to be moved by the final shot, of Ethel and Norman standing still on the shores of Golden Pond, saying goodbye to it, perhaps for the last time, as the camera pulls back and up, making them smaller and smaller and revealing more and more of the natural world to which, as human beings whose stay on earth can only be brief, they will soon return.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on On Golden Pond, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Neil Heims

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Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In this essay, he argues that On Golden Pond is an actors' play.

Whenever Norman Thayer, the eighty-year-old protagonist of On Golden Pond, speaks, he camouflages the expression of his thoughts and feelings using clever and evasive verbal tricks and riffs of language. These contrivances allow him simultaneously to express and to avoid confronting unpleasant realities, such as his disquiet at aging or his anxiety about death. Likewise, he can avoid making direct contact with other people, like his daughter—which he finds embarrassing. These verbalizations serve to distance him from his real emotions and to permit him to stand aloof and apparently unaffected, as if with an academic detachment—he is a retired college English professor—above and outside everything, offering wry commentary.

The behavior is so characteristic of him that it is impossible to know whether it is deliberate—that he is aware he is doing it and aware of the feelings he is camouflaging—or whether it has become so ingrained in him that he is unaware of it or of the feelings he is avoiding. Is it so deeply his manner that, in fact, one identity has usurped another and his "real" meanings are hidden from even himself? Perhaps they have actually been obliterated so thoroughly that they exist beneath the surface of the self he seems to be, like unburied ghosts condemned to wander disembodied among the living. The actor playing Norman must be able to convey two simultaneously interconnected and alienated personalities moving, as it were, in opposite directions. One is expressed and seen, and the other is repressed and invisible. The antecedent, submerged personality or self, however, suffuses everything about him and covers him like a shadow or an aura.

It is just this tension between what is expressed and what is withheld, yet suggested in Norman Thayer's character and the profound challenge it presents to the actor playing him that give On Golden Pond a subdued emotional force and make it an actors' play. A similar challenge, indeed, confronts the actress playing Ethel Thayer, Norman's wife of forty-six years. She must portray a woman who sees the man beneath the man Norman presents to the world and even, frequently, to her. She must portray a strongly independent woman who is beset, even irritated, by the frustration of his flinty and distracted character but who has a deep, abiding, and even submissive love for him, just because she can understand the language he speaks and, in a sense, translate it. She must convey Ethel's ability to see what is admirable in Norman when he appears foolish and what is generous about him when he appears cranky. The words that Norman and Ethel speak must serve to express things that are not being said but which are palpably present. The dramatic tension that gives On Golden Pond vibrancy depends on the actors' subtle portrayal of the characters much more than on the plot, for there is really very little plot. Without virtuoso performances by charismatic actors who can command a stage and hold an audience, what plot there is can come across as relatively hackneyed, sentimental, and even manipulative.

Much of the "action" of On Golden Pond is concerned with conveying the local color of rural Maine and, more significantly, establishing Norman and Ethel as endearing characters, despite everything, characters with whom the audience is supposed to bond. If the audience does not become fond of their environment and enchanted by these characters and is not indeed seduced by them, what little plot there is will go by, leaving no impression. So Norman is shown in his bumbling interactions with the telephone, the want ads in the newspaper, a rack of hats, and a broken screen door. He is made to deliver gently bigoted observations about the neighbors and wry comments about the past and the landscape. He is given a verbal dexterity that shows that while he may be forgetful, he is still intellectually sharp. Ethel's ongoing battle with spiders, blackflies, and mosquitoes takes up a fair share of her dialogue, as do her reminiscences about her childhood on the pond, her "conversations" with the loons that live there, and her affection for her childhood doll. If the actors can establish a convincing relationship with each other and a rapport with the audience, then the three elements that constitute the plot—Norman's failed relationship with his daughter, his April-December friendship with his daughter's thirteen-year-old stepson-to-be, and his confrontation with his own approaching death—will resonate with the audience. It will cause a catch in the throat, a tear in the eye, and a melancholy smile.

Despite its reliance on characters, On Golden Pond is not a deeply psychological play. It simply presents what is. Norman, for example, is ill at ease with his forty-two-year-old daughter, Chelsea, it seems certain, because she is not male. Joie de vivre is restored to his life because young Billy Ray, who spends the summer with him, is a boy and can, therefore, be the son Chelsea never was. Chelsea is angry with her father and has made only infrequent visits to the family, because she has never been cherished as a girl or a woman and, consequently, as a person. She has been kept at a distance by her disappointed father, whose only topic of conversation with her has always been baseball, as if he were ignoring the fact that she is not male. As an adult, she has kept herself at a distance, infrequently visiting her parents.

Very little in the script seems to motivate Chelsea and Norman's reconciliation toward the end of On Golden Pond, except her sense, encouraged by her mother, that if she does not make peace with her father now, there will not be much time left in his life for her to do so. Perhaps her own aging and the need to be "normal" are also factors. Her meeting Bill Ray, the decent, successful, straightforward dentist with the son who brightens her father's summer and brings verve to his life, may also have given her the strength to give up needing her father's approval and to let go of the anger that has resulted from getting so little of it.

Their reconciliation, consequently, is much more the result of Chelsea's capitulation to the reality of her need to love her father and her accepting that she wishes him to love her than it is of a dramatically developed, mutual realization of each other or a recognition on his part that she is a person. To make contact with him, she apologizes to her father, "I just wanted to say … that I'm sorry." His response—"Fine. No problem."—seems to show no more interest in her than he has ever shown. But she persists, "Don't you want to know what I'm sorry about?" He ventures, "I suppose so." And she tells him, "I'm sorry that our communication has been so bad…. That I've been walking around with a chip on my shoulder." He says only, "Oh." When she continues, apologizing for not attending his retirement dinner, he only talks about what a funny speech he gave.

She persists in searching for some traction: "I think it would be a good idea if we tried … to have the kind of relationship we're supposed to have." He asks, "What kind of relationship are we supposed to have?" "Like a father and a daughter," she replies. "We've been mad at each other for too long." He answers in a telling fashion, "I didn't realize we were mad. I thought we just didn't like each other." The audience may infer from this exchange that she was "mad" at him because he did not like her. In view of the close and mutually gratifying relationship Norman has forged with Billy, the reason for his dislike of Chelsea seems quite simply to be because, being a daughter, she frustrated his wish for a son. Despite her father's apparently cool response, she forges ahead. "I want to be your friend," she says. Rather than yielding verbally, he retorts with what seems like a passive reproach: "Does this mean you're going to come around more often?" She says yes, and he responds, still remaining distant, at least on the surface, "It would mean a lot to your mother," overtly saying nothing about himself. She answers, "Okay," and the stage direction reads "They look at each other a moment, nothing more to say." She picks up the dialogue where he left off before her intervention, "Now you want to tell me about the Yankees?"

In print, Norman comes off as rather cold and unsympathetic in this exchange and Chelsea as perhaps more generous than she ought to be. Many in the audience might think that she has a valid grievance, rather than a chip on her shoulder. But the written text itself is only scaffolding, something like a musical score that must be brought to life through the interpretation of performers. The meaning and intensity of the confrontation depend on how the actors play it and what they bring to it. Norman's dialogue is hardly Shakespearean, but all of what Norman says can be delivered by an actor in such a way as to suggest everything that he might feel but is unable to say. What comes across on the page as dry, detached, and cold may be used onstage to show desperate struggle, inner turmoil, the conflict between love and embarrassment, and quiet self-conquest. Thus, when Chelsea finally tells Norman that she has married Bill, his elaborate but familiar ritual of teasing, evasion, and punning can signify a real connection with her rather than withdrawal. The one word, "Yes," he directs at her, in response to Ethel's rhetorical, "Isn't that wonderful?" in the midst of his usual verbal high jinks, can be fraught with an immensity of acceptance. The revelation that the actor playing Norman can bring to the scene is that the reason Norman longed for a son, rather than a daughter, was not that he valued a boy more but that he was unable to tolerate the emotion having and loving a daughter might provoke in him. He was too embarrassed by his love for her to express it or even to permit it. The strength of his evasion, then, can serve to indicate, in inverse ratio, the strength of his love, a love too strong for him to express, a current too powerful for the wire. Even his expressions of love for Ethel, after all, are often tinged with protective irony.

One further challenge is given to the actor playing Norman. His characteristic evasiveness and witty digressive tangents, his professorial absent-mindedness, might no longer be only what they seem but instead indications of an incipient senility and the approach of death. Death does pay a warning visit in the last scene of the play, when Norman suffers a minor heart attack. The combination of the real awareness of mortality, contact with Billy, and reconciliation with his daughter creates in him a renewed desire for life, which he expresses with his familiar ironic reserve. But through Norman's characteristic understatement, cynicism, and detachment, the actor playing him can clearly signify his connection with life and his family, instead of evasion. Indeed, Ethel's closing words of the play—"Hello, Golden Pond. We've come to say goodbye."—are moving because they encapsulate in one utterance the melancholy awareness at the core of the play, which Norman, too, has come to realize and accept, that greeting and parting are inextricably implicated in each other.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on On Golden Pond, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Linda Armstrong

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In the following review of a 2005 production of On Golden Pond, Armstrong calls the play "a flawless piece of theater," and praises Thompson for creating "a piece that is filled with human frailty as well as laughter."

On Golden Pond is a very funny and sometimes moving play. James Earl Jones is delightful, rude, amusing and vulnerable in the lead role of Norman Thayer. Leslie Uggams is spirited, funny and charming as his wife and co-star, Ethel.

These characters staying at their summer lakeside home on Golden Pond have a vacation that everyone who sees this production will remember. On Golden Pond is really a play about what all people can go through when they become old, no matter their ethnic background. It deals with the love that lasts over decades between a couple, but also shows the ornery side of a person who is being affected by growing old—losing his memories and losing his train of thought. Norman is turning 80 and can't remember which people are in various pictures displayed in their lakeside home. This is also a story about the strained relationship that can happen between a father and daughter.

Although there are a few emotional scenes in this magnificent production, most of the play is filled with humor. Norman has a quick, often sarcastic or rude reply to anything he hears, and Ethel doesn't shy away from letting him know he's an "old poop." Norman, however, tends to be the source of humor, with his saucy comments. In one scene his daughter Chelsea (powerfully performed by Linda Powell) comes to the family's home with Bill (well done by Peter Francis James), her fiancé, and his 13-year-old son, Billy (marvelously played by Alexander Mitchell). When the boy meets Norman he tells him he's old. Norman says, "You should meet my father." When Billy asks if his father is still alive, Norman replies with a straight face, "No, but you should meet him."

Anyone who comes in contact with Norman is fair game. When Bill is left alone to talk with Norman and asks if it's o.k. to sleep with Chelsea while they spend the week with them, Norman puts him through the ringer. Then he tells him, "I would be delighted to have you abusing my daughter—upstairs. Do you want to violate her in the same bedroom I did Ethel?"

Playwright Ernest Thompson, who also wrote the original movie and past Broadway stage version of this play, has created a piece that is filled with human frailty as well as laughter. Norman becomes a very sympathetic character, in a scene in which Ethel asks him to pick some strawberries. She names the location and when he comes back within moments with an empty basket, she is livid. As she questions him, he has to painfully admit that he didn't know how to find the place where the strawberries were. When he walked away from the house, nothing looked familiar. He had to run home to see her pretty face and to reassure himself that he was himself. As Norman shares his fears, Ethel is moved to comfort him. She holds him and promises to show him where the strawberries are and pick them.

In this scene, as well as others in the production, Uggams and Jones simply shined.

Uggams has such a warm and loving presence on the stage, and Jones is a gem.

Thompson also presents Norman as someone who had a difficult relationship with his daughter when she was growing up. Chelsea could never please him and has grown to dislike and resent him. Anytime they are together they go at each other. Powell is captivating as Chelsea. She is vulnerable to her father's mean-spirited comments and easily able to fire back. Powell clearly demonstrates the deep emotions that this character goes through, from being hurt and feeling inadequate to being angry and then allowing herself to be vulnerable and extend the olive branch to begin mending their relationship.

On Golden Pond is a flawless piece of theater, from the phenomenal acting performances of the cast to the fabulous script by Thompson and the precious direction by Leonard Foglia.

This incredible production is playing at the Cort Theater, where I had the pleasure of attending the opening night. The theater was full of celebrities, including Tony Award winners Lillias White, Audra McDonald, and Brian Stokes Mitchell; singer Dionne Warwick; and former Mayor David Dinkins.

"This is an event. Anytime you see a great play with great actors, it's always a plus," said dancer/choreographer/actor Maurice Hines.

Referring to Uggams and Jones, actor/writer/composer Lee Summers said, "They are theatrical royalty. No finer actors of any color could have been chosen for this production." Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Linda Powell's father, also attended opening night with her mother and sister.

Commenting on Linda's performance, Powell said, "It's always a delight to watch her on stage. We saw the show in Washington. It's just so polished. When she's on stage, I'm more nervous than she is."

Source: Linda Armstrong, "On Golden Pond Shimmers with Spectacular Performances," in New York Amsterdam News, Vol. 96, No. 16, April 14, 2005, pp. 22-23.


Critical Overview