Norman Thayer, Jr is quite possibly the biggest curmudgeon on the face of the planet. He’s also one of the sweetest people ever. But, according to his longsuffering wife Ethel, she’s the only person who knows it. One person who definitely does not know it is their daughter Chelsea. The best way to describe the relationship between the now-adult daughter and her father is that she calls him Norman rather than the usual Dad or Daddy.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. On Golden Pond is one of the most memorable movies of all time, partly because it was screen legend Henry Fonda’s last movie and a collaboration with his also famous daughter, Jane Fonda. But it is also memorable because it was a masterpiece of a movie. The part of Norman Thayer is so emblemized by Fonda that it’s hard to watch anyone else play the part without thinking of it.
What everyone may not know is that the movie was an adaptation of an equally celebrated play by Ernest Thompson. The movie seems to play up the more negative aspects of Thayer’s personality than does the stage production. Or maybe it’s simply that the part, portrayed so masterfully by Dave Grande in the Actors Guild of Parkersburg’s latest production, was just taken in a different, slightly softer direction. Grande’s Thayer is cantankerous to be sure, but there seems to be a more lighthearted man just under the surface. It is far enough under the surface, though, that those who don’t know him well will likely miss it. The one person who sees it plainly is his wife Ethel, who is played with great aplomb by Tara Polan. The two have such a sweet chemistry that they really do feel like a couple who have known each other for half a century.
As is usual with a Guild production, the supporting cast is of high quality as well. To be fair, the cast of this show is quite small, but every single actor is spot on. Leading the way is Natalie Bradley as Chelsea, the woman who still feels like she’s the daughter that Norman never wanted. The pain and resentment she just can’t seem to put behind her is palpable as she and her father spar verbally from the moment she walks in the door. Also impressive are Ben Bradley and Kaleb Windland as Chelsea’s fiancé Bill and his son Billy. Windland nearly steals the show as the youngster stays for a month with the Thayers in their vacation home on Golden Pond and immediately softens Norman’s crusty exterior.
Also doing a heck of a job in trying to steal the show is the versatile Danny Bayer as local mailman Charlie Martin, who has carried a not-so-secret torch for Chelsea since they were children. Bayer is just plain hilarious in the role of the eccentric mailman who stops to have coffee and biscuits as he delivers the mail along with an equal portion of news about the happenings around the lake.
This play is at times laugh-out-loud funny. It is also in turn terribly sad, and a tad uncomfortable occasionally. But there’s also a good portion of sweetness as we watch a truly loving couple as they come to grips with the twilight of their lives together in their favorite place on earth, the beloved Golden Pond. I loved this show so much. I know you will too. Director Greg Merritt has done a splendid job of putting his own personal stamp on the show. You must see it. You just have to. The show opens Friday, June 14 at 8:00pm with subsequent evening performances on June 15, 21, 22, 28, and 29. Only one matinee will be staged at 2:30pm on Sunday June 23. You can get tickets by calling the box office at 304-485-1300 or by visiting www.actors-guild.com.