For those of us on the Southside, traveling to the Peninsula rarely goes as planned.
If it’s not the HRBT or all that road work on 64 between Hampton and Williamsburg, then there’s sure to be an accident somewhere along the route, or some lady who looks like Hillary Clinton is going to try to back into you multiple times in the theatre parking lot in her SUV. Surmounting these obstacles, I made it right on time for Saturday’s show of On Golden Pond by the Williamsburg Players, and I sure am glad I did because it’s a lovely show: warm and fuzzy and full of wonderful things.
The story is set at the Thayer family’s lake house in Maine, on the shore of Golden Pond. It starts with the aging Norman and Ethel arriving in May and settling in for the summer. They interact with a few locals: the telephone operator and the mailman. When June rolls around, their 42-year-old daughter Chelsea arrives just in time for her dad’s 80th birthday, and she brings her boyfriend, Bill Ray, and his young teenage son, Billy Ray, Jr. Chelsea and Bill are leaving on a trip to Europe, and Ethel convinces Norman to allow Billy to stay with them for a month. The rest of the play is an exposition of relationships: the new one between the old man and the boy, the old one between the husband and wife (and the difficulties that come with aging together), and the struggling one between the father and daughter. The script is not without its imperfections, like a lack of full resolution to some of the conflicts or an awkward minute where Norman makes some unconnected anti-Semitic remarks (“poorly aged,” one might say, though they were recognizable 35 years ago), but the story is heartfelt and the exploration of character sincere.
When the curtains first open, the set is a treat to behold. Kudos to Julie King on the design, which makes great use of the spacious stage. The cozy family room fills most of the space, with a hall and a stair on the audience’s right hinting at other rooms, and at the left is a porch with the lake shore projected on the scrim behind it. The movement of the scrim caused occasional distraction, but the constant view of the landscape in the background really adds to the atmosphere, especially when the lights go down outside at night and the bluish glow looks like the moonlight shining on the lake. King also directed the show. The actors are staged well—it seems she put a lot of thought into not only designing the space, but also into how the actors move about it. In the future, Ms. King might consider doing more table work with some of the actors to push and shape certain elements of their performances, but luckily she has a lot of talent to work with here.
The two leading players, Terry Nienhuis as Norman Thayer and Debbie Noonan as Ethel Thayer, were absolutely superb. Nienhuis is expressive—from the reactions on his face to his physical gestures, and especially with his singular laugh (often at his own jokes), he perfectly captures the sometimes curmudgeonly but lovable old man. Noonan is steady and methodical, always moving from one task to the next, but with a fueling warmth that never lets you question her motivation: everything she does is for the benefit of those she cares about. Combined, these two make an excellent team: the trust and affection of a 40+ year marriage feel real, played out between them in their touches, their flirtations, their intonation—they’re a couple who turns toward each other. When Ethel asks if they’re going to spend all afternoon quibbling over whether or not they’re elderly, Norman teasingly responds, “We can if you like,” and Nienhuis says it so pleasantly that you think he really might enjoy it if she would.
Holly Cunningham plays a very sweet Chelsea Thayer. She does well at drawing in the audience for her happy moments, though she struggles to do so during her more emotionally turbulent ones: during her heated discussion about her father, she goes from seeming mildly annoyed to, for a fleeting moment, very angry but doesn’t have the chance to show the emotional levels in between. Some directorial coaching through the various stages and away from the stagy pauses amidst her dialogue that keep her from picking up momentum could have helped her show the audience how deep this slow-burning grudge with her father lies.
Jason Morris as Bill Ray struggles throughout his primary scene. He chiefly interacts with Norman but spent almost all of his conversation looking and speaking directly out over the audience rather than engaging with the person next to him. Looking at who he’s talking to, as one would in an actual conversation, would look much more natural; had he been guided to cheat out, rather than act full out, that simple change could revolutionize his performance.
Kevin Kelly as Billy Ray Jr. is wonderful—he’s the kind of young actor you see and say to yourself, “He’s going places.” The way he moved about the space like it was his own from the moment he set foot in it perfectly articulated his character’s spunk. Michael Mavrogiannis as the mailman, Charlie Martin, is very socially awkward but also very endearing. I hope to see him in future productions and see his acting skills grow, as this is his first production (since third grade, at least, according to his bio). Stephanie Smith as the Operator did a lot of dialect work for her role, from the sound of it. I only had a middle school history teacher from Boston, so I’ve hardly been around New England accents enough to be a good judge of quality, but Smith’s Maine accent seemed convincing enough for a Virginian audience.
Donna Apperson did a great job on costumes. Norman’s clothes, specifically, distinctively reminded me of the father of one of my friends. Ethel looked humble but cheery, in her floral mom-ish button-ups. Chelsea’s last outfit, a skirt and silky mustard-colored blouse, captured her west coast career woman look perfectly, and I might have liked to see some of her earlier options reflect that more. The pith helmet for Charlie was a nice touch.
The lighting design by Scott Hayes differentiated the inside and outside spaces well but could have used a bit more color to help make the times of day more distinctive—using the same bright white indoors for both daytime and nighttime scenes felt a bit unnatural. Sound design by John Trindle was solid—the use of the movie soundtrack for at least part of the music selection turned out to be an excellent choice. The boat noises worked well. The only moment that had me a bit confused was when the rain started, and Norman and Billy return to the house in wet clothes, but the audience never hears the sudden downpour—an important sensory cue.
I’m very glad I had the opportunity to see this production. It was only my second time visiting the Williamsburg Players, the first being for their production of Six Degrees of Separation, and both shows have impressed me with their overall quality. This charming character study is a heartwarming examination of love and relationships old and new, and the lead actors are a joy to watch. Definitely worth it for any southsider willing to brave the commute. Just make sure to check your rearview mirrors for tiny cars like mine before backing out of your parking spot.
On Golden Pond runs thru May 20. Thurs & Fri 8:00pm, Sat 2:00pm & 8:00pm. Call (757) 229-0431 or click here to reserve your seats. And be sure to let us know what you thought of the show in the comments!