New York City Theater
"On Golden Pond"
One cannot help comparing the current production of “On Golden Pond”—now on Broadway—to earlier versions, particularly the Henry Fonda/Jane Fonda/Katherine Hepburn film. And how do the comparisons shape up? Amazingly, despite the film’s star power, this newest “Golden Pond” comes off better in many ways. Under Leonard Foglia’s direction, this James Earl Jones/Leslie Uggams team finds far more humor in this play about aging.
Granted that the text of Ernest Thompson’s play is untampered. Yes, it is still a crusty old man facing his mortality. It is still about his relations with his feisty wife and his resentful daughter. Yes, it is that same Adirondack scene, that same lakeshore lodge (the family’s summer home of many years), that same visit of the daughter with her new fiancé and teen-age son.
But the Jones/Uggams team gives the story humanity, without the whining sentimentality of the film. Jones’s Norman Thayer has the same sardonic lines, but he is a more likeable curmudgeon, by far, than Henry Fonda’s professor. And Leslie Uggams turns in a delightfully warm portrayal, more at home in the role than her predecessor Hepburn. It was always a joy to watch Hepburn being Hepburn, but Uggams makes the role her own.
It is only in the father-daughter department that the film outstrips this Broadway show. There we had a slice of reality. Henry and Jane Fonda were not playing roles, but just being themselves, revealing the painful family relationship that had existed for many years. The senior Fonda (according to his daughter in her memoirs) was a distant, inaccessible parent.
As to the current show, it is harder to accept that this is a difficult relationship, given Jones’s likeability--and in this respect the play falters. The daughter is played by Linda Powell (real-life daughter of Colin Powell), a radiant, appealing actress. But she does not project the neurotic, needy character so well defined by Jane Fonda. But supporters in this cast are first-rate, particularly Alexander Mitchell as the swaggering, self-assured teen-age son, who becomes the old man’s buddy.
All told, this “On Golden Pond” is as comforting as a warm fuzzy blanket. And if the surrounding darkness still exists, it is far less menacing than the earlier versions.
-- Irene Backalenick
April 13, 2005