Review: On Golden Pond misses a golden opportunity at the Barth

It's always a treat to attend a play in the antique and elegant lobby of the Barth Hotel, one of fourteen residences maintained for elderly and disabled people by the nonprofit Senior Housing Options. In the past, the money from these annual fundraisers has been used to provide emergency kits and upgrade technology for the residents; this year's proceeds will go for needed capital projects. In some ways, On Golden Pond is a perfect choice for the venue. It depicts the slow, sometimes wise and sometimes graceless aging of a long-term couple struggling to understand the meaning of their lives. But the action, as the title suggests, is bathed in a golden nostalgic light -- and that light is not always illuminating.

As the show opens, Norman and Ethel Thayer are moving back into their summer house in Maine. Every summer for 48 years, he's come here to fish and she to putter around, read, gather strawberries. This, their last visit, represents a slow, gentle fading. There's just a tiny bit of conflict. When daughter Chelsea -- who's 42 with a couple of failed relationships behind her -- arrives with her new boyfriend, Bill, and his teenage son, Billy, we learn that she harbors a great deal of anger toward her father. It's never clear quite why, though she does remember him calling her fat and ignoring her when she was young. But if the guy's a curmudgeon, he appears to be a lovable one. Chelsea's angry with her mother, too, for not standing up for her. Was charming Ethel cold toward her daughter? We'll never know -- but if she had been, it would certainly have made for a richer and more interesting plot. The problem with this 1979 script is that although Norman and Ethel are endearing, there's nothing particularly interesting about their lives. Most of the time you're watching cute bickering that feels like the dialogue in an above-average sitcom: She calls him an old poop; he likes to willfully misunderstand her.

Chelsea and Bill leave young Billy with Norman and Ethel and set out for a trip to Europe. You can't help feeling sorry for the lad. Golden Pond, despite the strawberries down the road and the ever-present family of loons on the water, must be a boring place for a teenager -- especially compared to Europe. No girls, no other kids his age, no movies. But Billy does bond with Norman -- at which point it becomes blindingly clear that Norman's big problem with his daughter is that he wanted a son all along. So when she returns and sees what has happened, does she weep, rage, rationalize? Get a little angry with her new stepson though she knows it's not his fault? Have the emotional generosity to bask in her father's new warmth, even if it's not directed toward herself? She doesn't do any of this -- she can't, because her character isn't fully developed. There's no real interaction between her and young Billy, either, none of the frictions and pleasures of trying to get to know another human being who's just become family. When she and his father decide to get married while in Europe, they don't even bother to call and tell the kid ahead of time.

The 1981 film On Golden Pond got a lot of attention because of the star power of its actors. Henry Fonda had never worked with Katharine Hepburn before the two played the Thayers. Jane Fonda was Chelsea, and it was well known that she and her father had been estranged. According to the gossip, this magical film brought them together. The result was three Oscars (for Hepburn, Henry Fonda and playwright Ernest Thompson, who adapted his work for the screen). In this production, Lawrence Hecht does a magnificent turn as Norman, though his humorous charm leaves Tara Falk -- who plays Chelsea effectively -- without a worthy opponent. Billie McBride hits all the right notes as Ethel, spry and little against her large, lumbering mate. There are also solid performances from Jon Fortmiller as Charlie, a childhood friend with a crush on Chelsea; Drew Horwitz as Bill; and Shem Brown as young Billy. But neither these performances nor hallowed-by-Hollywood memories can ransom a turgid script.

On Golden Pond is at the Barth Hotel, 1514 17th Street, through August 30. For tickets, call 303-595-4464, ext. 10 or go to

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman