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VANILLA BUT TASTY: Local luminaries make predictable ‘On Golden Pond’ worth the swim

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“On Golden Pond” welcomes a lovely evening in theater and a chance to see some of our local luminaries working at a very high caliber.

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In the midst of assorted headline-making theatre news (CFCC’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center opening, a la the Cape Fear Stage; UNCW transforming its arts administration; Dram Tree Shakespeare losing its artistic director after their inaugural show, etc.), the renovation of the Thalian Hall Studio Theatre to the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre—primarily used for showing films—sort of flew under the radar. Aside from the massive overhaul of the Main Stage, the smaller, formerly black-box theatre, has been converted to have stadium-style seating (complete with cup holders). 

Initially I thought that losing the flexibility of the black box space—which can be configured infinitely to meet production concepts—would reduce the performance space artistically. I have to say, between the recent production of “Box and Cox” by John Madsen and the current showing of Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond,” I retract my earlier qualms. Designer Gary Ralph Smith created a really beautiful world for “On Golden Pond,” complete with wood and glimpses of the pond (utilizing what appears to be Fritzi Huber’s paper craft skills) that is dynamic and interesting.

TWILIGHT YEARS: Tony Rivenbark and Suellen Yates as Norman and Ruth Thayer in “On Golden Pond,” which opens Thursday. Courtesy photo

TWILIGHT YEARS: Tony Rivenbark and Suellen Yates as Norman and Ruth Thayer in “On Golden Pond,” which opens Thursday. Courtesy photo

“On Golden Pond” is Thompson’s claim to fame. It opened on Broadway in 1979 and was made into a film with the Fondas and Katherine Hepburn the following year. Set in the early 1980s at a vacation spot in rural Maine, “On Golden Pond” follows the tried and true trope of gathering a family in a house haunted by ghosts of the past—and letting them fight it out.

Norman (Tony Rivenbark) and Ethel Thayer (Suellen Yates) have been married for around half a century—long enough to have an adult daughter and to battle the minor daily battles of aging: memory loss, reduced range of motion, fear of falling, etc. Norman is staring one major gripe with aging square in the face: He is no longer relevant. Retired and honestly not employable, he doesn’t handle any decisions in his daily life, friends no longer seek him out, and only his wife (barely) tolerates him.

Enter his adult daughter, Chelsea (Rachel Lewis Hilburn), who is still nursing a grudge from an imperfect childhood. Somehow she manages to let it control her life in her mid-40s. She materializes with her current boyfriend, a dentist named Bill Ray, played by real-life dentist Donald Bland, and his 13 year old son, Billy Ray Jr. (Aidan Malone).

Commence catharsis countdown in five, four, three, two…

Rivenbark’s Thayer basically is a jokester whose humor is understood by an audience he can’t see. Charlie the mailman (George Domby) is essentially a sweet, nice guy without much experience beyond this small community. Yet, he senses, somehow, he is the butt of Norman’s jokes. Still, he’s either too polite and kind, or too uncertain, to say anything. It is not that Norman is actually that caustic, it is just that he has a brand of humor expected and accepted for men of his generation. Unfortunately, for Norman (and the many  men like him wandering around in the real world), no one, except their wives, would put up with it anymore. It was never funny; it was just aimed at making certain that everyone in the room knew he was top dog. Neither he (nor his ilk) have been for many moons. It is a tough and terrible adjustment. For Norman, there is still an audience that quavers and makes him center stage: his daughter, Chelsea. With her, every zinger hits home—except he doesn’t actually mean them to be zingers. Norman’s just trying to make conversation the only way he knows how.

Rivenbark’s sense of comic timing is lovely. The couple next to me just couldn’t get enough of him. His interactions with Yates were pitch perfect as a long married couple who have in many ways become two sides of one coin.

Aiden Malone did manage to steal the hearts of the women in the audience with his rendition of a disaffected youth-turned- everyone’s favorite grandson. Director Judy Greenhut did a great job of keeping him in motion and using his space to create physical comedy. That’s not a surprise; Greenhut is a gifted choreographer and thinks in movement the way painters think in image. She is also a wonderful teacher and works really well with helping young people learn their craft is just as much about their body in space as it is their motivation emotionally or mentally.

It’s nice to see a family drama without trying to resolve issues of abuse and incest in two hours or less. But taking Chelsea’s struggle seriously is a bit much: I could never be good enough. OK, Chelsea, you are 45; get over it and get on with your life. I just wanted to shake her. Lewis Hilburn is a beautiful woman; therefore, her Chelsea is attractive. Chelsea is also accomplished, connected, charming, and capable of great joy and heartfelt desire. If anything, Lewis Hilburn’s rendition reminds us that many of us are doing better than we give ourselves credit for and we need to stop whining.

For the audience this series is aimed at: It’s a perfect choice. There is nothing challenging, edgy or frightening about the script. It is as vanilla as it gets. What makes it worth seeing is not the writing (which is predictable and derivative), but the spot-on cast and the wonderful design elements. It is a lovely evening out at the theater and a chance to see some of our local luminaries working at a very high caliber.

On Golden Pond
October 22-24, and 26 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 25, 2 p.m.
Thalian Hall
Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre
Tickets: $25

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