Review: ‘On Golden Pond’ at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts

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Riverside Center for the Performing Arts presents Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond, directed by Sherri L. Edelen. Joyce Dewitt from ABC’s hit comedy Three’s Company and the renowned Joe Inscoe star as Ethel and Norman Thayer, an elderly couple who share an eventful season at their New England summer home.

Joyce DeWitt and Joe Inscoe. Photograph courtesy of Riverside Center for the Performing Arts.

Since this play unfolds in one setting, scenic designer Frank Foster takes the Thayer’s living room and runs with it, making the most out of every cubic foot that the stage has to offer. It is impeccably detailed, from the stone fireplace and wooden rafters to the mounted fishing reels and jumbled stack of board games. Lighting Designer Michael Jarett and Sound Designer Bethany Galyen complete the atmosphere with the soft glow of the early afternoon sun and bird-calls coming up from the lake.

We meet the Thayers as they arrive at their home on Golden Pond, Maine, for the summer. Ethel is a flurry of activity, eager to get out onto the lake as she pulls dust-covers off of the furniture and unrolls a large rug. She does this while engaging in some lighthearted banter with Norman, her curmudgeon of a husband with whom, we’ll come to find, she seems to be the only person he gets along. The two seem a somewhat unlikely pair; while ill-tempered Norman ambles around dithering about this or that and arguing with the put-upon phone operator, Ethel is in joyful awe of her surroundings, reveling in her nostalgic memories and sparkling with excitement when she hears the calls from the loons, her favorite birds.

The Thayers have been coming to their summer home every year for decades, though this particular summer is shaken up when they are visited by their daughter Chelsea (Jennifer Joyner), who has brought her fiancé Bill (Alan Hoffman) and his young son Billy (Mitchell Austin, who shows a lot of talent and potential in this role.) Norman proves himself to be an intimidating figure, which ruffles Bill’s feathers but does nothing to deter young Billy, a curious boy who seems to determined to crack Norman’s tough shell. Long-suffered tensions are tested as Chelsea tries to relate to her distant father. I particularly enjoyed an exchange where she tells him that she regrets that they have been “mad at each other” for so many years, to which Norman replies, “Mad at each other? I thought we just didn’t like each other.”

Joyce DeWitt, Jennifer Joyner, Alan Hoffman, and Joe Inscoe. Photograph courtesy of Riverside Center for the Performing Arts.

What’s fascinating about Norman is that while he is most disagreeable, he is also the clear audience favorite. You see, Norman is funny, and his deadpan, dry humor receives laugh after laugh from the crowd. An example of this is when Ethel says, “Can you believe it’s our 48th Summer here?” and he claps back, “Probably our last.” Everybody loves him, and yet, a central argument of this play is built upon the fact that this man is unlikeable. It’s a study of difficult people, the people who love them, and  the rich rewards that they offer. Because, no matter how many times Ethel heaves an exasperated sigh and calls Norman an “old poop,” you know that she wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. “You really are the sweetest man in the world,” says Ethel, “and I am the only one who knows it.”

The cast here is superb. Of course, Joyce Dewitt is welcomed onstage with rollicking fanfare from those who loved her on Three’s Company, and does a fine job in making them fall in love with her character Ethel as well. Andrew C. Boothby lends some lighthearted moments as Charlie Martin, the Thayer’s longstanding friend and mailman, and Joyner gives a steady performance as Chelsea, a woman who is looking to heal old wounds without creating new ones. However, this production belongs to Joe Inscoe. His performance as Norman is as moving as it is funny, and he is very funny. He grabbed a hold of the audience’s attention and commanded it throughout the show…and, I’ll admit, he still has mine the night afterwards.

Riverside Center’s On Golden Pond  is a nostalgic, witty escape that will ensure that you leave with a smile. Grab a pair of tickets before they’re gone!

Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

On Golden Pond plays through November 19, 2017 at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts — 95 Riverside Parkway in Fredericksburg, VA. Purchase tickets online.