Float Trip: The Black Rep takes its time On Golden Pond

Jan 19, 2012 at 4:00 am
"On Golden Pond" directed by Lorna Littleway and performed by The Black Rep, St. Louis, MO now through February 5, 2012 at the Grandel Theatre in Grand Center.
"On Golden Pond" directed by Lorna Littleway and performed by The Black Rep, St. Louis, MO now through February 5, 2012 at the Grandel Theatre in Grand Center. Stewart Goldstein
There's a languid, busy-doin'-nothin' quality to On Golden Pond that suits its subject matter: the presumptive final summer spent at the Maine vacation home of aged sweethearts Ethel and Norman Thayer, portrayed by Linda Kennedy and Ron Himes in this Black Rep production. Ernest Thompson's script drops in on the Thayers once a month from May to September, charting the ups and downs of the season, which include guests both expected (Charlie the mailman, played with simplistic glee by Aaron Baker) and unexpected (estranged daughter Chelsea and her latest beau, avec beau's teenage son). The Thayers discuss all their dead neighbors, pick wild strawberries, drink coffee and reminisce about summers gone by.

If it sounds slight, it is. And yet under the direction of Lorna Littleway, this balsawood structure of halcyon memories (which Thompson re-adapted in 2005 for a Broadway revival starring James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams) is just enough framework for two charismatic and skilled actors such as Kennedy and Himes to build a magnificent shared performance.

Ethel is a feisty and cheerful woman who exults in every experience Golden Pond has to offer, whether it's watching the loons out the kitchen window or picking unexpected strawberries on a walk. Kennedy finds the core of her in movement; Ethel never walks when she can skip, never talks when she can sing. Her cheerfulness balances Norman's sourness, but it's not a reaction to him; she really is this happy with life, even though a great deal of her time is spent chivvying Norman out of a morbid funk.

For Norman, the now is quickly diminishing. Himes devotes a significant portion of the first act staring out windows, likely on the lookout for death, which he's certain is poised to snatch him. He speaks loudly and authoritatively, he's mildly racist and his tongue is as sharp as his manner is blunt, but Himes leavens the role with flashes of vulnerability. His right hand shakes when he becomes agitated, and he responds to any emotional expression with a blank "OK." But over the course of the play, Himes reveals that "OK" isn't a wall. It's the closest Norman can come to responding in kind, the careful hedge of a man who has inadvertently started too many arguments with his daughter by saying what he thinks instead of saying what she wants to hear.

What Chelsea (Kathi Bently) wants to hear is the crux of the play. Bently's time onstage is brief, and the role as written is uneven. Chelsea is an impetuous woman who has petulantly stored up every slight her father ever uttered; these are not the hallmarks of a sympathetic character, and yet Bently finds a way to make Chelsea at least likable. Pond builds to a rapprochement between Norman and Chelsea, one that's telegraphed a long way off. When the moment eventually transpires, it happens quietly but satisfactorily, thanks in large part to a scene that precedes it, in which when Ethel rebukes her daughter for living in the past. Here are the only fireworks in the play, as Kennedy's chipper demeanor drops to reveal the wood chipper underneath — you don't live with a Norman Thayer for 40 years and not have some steel in you. She shreds Chelsea's psyche with a truth hard-learned in old age: Everybody is annoying and needy and selfish, and that includes Chelsea. You can love them despite their flaws. And you should.

You could say the same for On Golden Pond. It has its flaws, but thanks to Himes and Kennedy's perfectly crafted performances, you've got to love it.