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On Golden Pond
by Ernest Thompson
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
July 7, 2017

Susie Wall, Joneal Joplin
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

On Golden Pond is a play that’s perhaps best known by its film adaptation, starring movie legends Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. The play itself has been seen as a showcase for distinguished peformers, and Insight’s latest production is a prime example, featuring a cast of excellent and award-winning local performers, and particularly in its two lead roles, played by the talented and prolific Joneal Joplin and Susie Wall.

This is a play that’s more character-driven than story-driven. The story is fairly slight, in fact. It’s a look at a long-married couple spending the summer at their lake house in Maine, like they have for the previous 47 years. Norman Thayer, Jr. (Joplin) is a retired university English professor, and he’s become increasingly curmudgeonly as he approaches his 80th birthday. His more optimistic wife, Ethel (Wall), grows weary of Norman’s constant talk about death and his strained relationship with their middle-aged daughter, Chelsea (Jenni Ryan), who has come to visit for Norman’s birthday with her new boyfriend, dentist Bill (Eric Dean White) and his 15-year-old son Billy (Michael Pierce) in tow. The “story” here is about the relationships, and how Norman and Ethel come to terms with aging and with the reality of the idea that each new summer at Golden Pond may be their last. It explores themes of aging, regret, broken and reconciling relationships, inter-generational friendships, and more while providing an excellent showcase for the actors involved.

And “the actors involved” are remarkable. Joplin, one of St. Louis theatre’s most prolific actors for the past few decades, has an ideal role here with Norman. Despite the more unsavory aspects of the character–his negativity and particularly his casual bigotry–Joplin’s considerable skill as an actor brings out the sympathy in Norman’s situation, and particularly in his relationships with Ethel, Chelsea, and Billy. Wall matches Joplin in every way as well in a formidable portrayal of the insistently, persistently optimistic Ethel, and their chemistry is heartwarmingly credible. There are also strong performances from the supporting cast–Ryan as the wounded but hopeful Chelsea, Pierce as the initially moody Billy–who bonds with Norman over fishing–White in the small role of the loyal new boyfriend Bill, and also from Kurt Knoedelseder as the sweet, slightly goofy local mailman Charlie, who grew up in the area and knows the family well.

The setting is well-realized, with Matt Stuckel’s detailed set bringing the rustic summer home to life with meticulous authenticity. The digital screen serving as the picture window overlooking the lake provides a nice atmospheric touch, and Robin Weatherall’s sound design contributes to the overall effect as well, as does Geordy Van Es’s lighting. My only small quibble is that the script, written in the late 1970s, doesn’t always lend well to the updating of the setting to the present day, as this production has done. Some of the dialogue and situations make more sense with the earlier setting.

There’s drama and a good amount of humor in On Golden Pond, with its somewhat talky story and with those richly portrayed characters, with the lake house itself becoming a prominent character as well. There isn’t a lot in terms of action, but at its best, it’s a moving look at aging, youth, family, and the power of memory and hope.┬áThe heart of the show, however, is the relationship between Norman and Ethel, which is touchingly portrayed here by two superb veteran St. Louis performers.

Jenni Ryan, Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting On Golden Pond at the .Zack Theatre until July 23, 2017.

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