By Arlene McKanic
Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” is a departure for Beari Productions. Beari usually presents musicals, or at least plays with music in them, and “On Golden Pond,” whose film version starred Katharine Hepburn and Jane and Henry Fonda, is a straight comedy-drama.
Yet the company did a cracking good job, made even more remarkable because director Debbie Bendana had to take over the role of Ethel from the ailing Lin Cirelli Loffert.
Ethel and Norman Thayer have been spending summers at their home — actually a home she inherited — on Maine’s Golden Pond for more than 40 years. When the play opens, Norman is on the cusp of his 80th birthday, Ethel is about 10 years younger and they’ve both begun to feel the icy breath of mortality. While the ever optimistic Ethel is ready to soldier on and enjoy her loons and lazy summers, Norman, who’s always been obsessed with death anyway, is certain he’s done for.
It doesn’t help that both his heart and memory are going democrat on him. Act one begins, after all, with a funny scene where Norman forgets he’s the one who called the unreliable local operator and she wasn’t the one who called him. On top of this there’s Chelsea, their estranged daughter, who’s finally coming to visit after an eight-year absence. She’s also bringing her latest boyfriend and his 13-year-old son.
The performances, as usual for a Beari production, are most pleasing. Kieran Larkin makes you like Norman despite his crankiness, sarcasm and never-quite-explained estrangement from his daughter. Is it because she’s a girl? He gets along swimmingly with her boyfriend’s son, Billy Ray Jr., played with brio by J.K. Larkin, and, of course, he deeply loves Ethel.
The scene where he hurries back to the house after a failed session of berry-picking just so he can see her “pretty face” is both amusing and poignant. Jimmy O’Neill is also excellent as Bill Ray Sr. Though he starts out as a little neurotic — he swears he’s seen a bear in the woods and worries that there might be dogs running around — Bill grows on you as he becomes a calm and respectable partner for the fractious Chelsea. He even calls Norman on his nonsense after the older man needles him while the women and kid are away.
Amie Backner is also good as the now-middle-aged woman who can’t help picking at the scab of her lousy, father-oppressed childhood but who’s finally willing to take small steps toward reconciliation. Joseph Schweigert is the sweet and goofy mailman who was Chelsea’s boyfriend for a surprisingly long time, and who she claims taught her everything she knows — though the audience might be inclined to think she taught him, given the difference in IQ.
But it’s Ethel who is the warm and living heart of the play, and Bendana portrays her beautifully. She hasn’t just put up with Norman for 48 years, but really sees to the core of this basically good if sometimes difficult man. The reader might want to check out Loffert’s portrayal as well.
On top of having to be a last-minute substitution, Bendana, used to helming big complex musicals, directs this straight-forward two-acter with confidence. John O’Hare, O’Neill and Schweigert did the simple set design while Amanda Doria provided the understated lighting and sound.
“On Golden Pond” will be at All Saints’ Church in Bayside Oct. 23 and 24. It’s a funny and compassionate work.