A brave woman is Morag Mouat, producer and director of Ernest Thomson’s On Golden Pond, the lates production by Islesburgh Drama Group at the Garrison Theatre in Lerwick.
In a review of an earlier performance of the play (written in 1978) – the New Yorker wrote “what courage it must have taken for Mr Thomson in the 1970s to write a play with so much affection”.
To direct the play with an amateur troupe, in Lerwick, in the 21st century, was equally courageous. Morag must have known that many of her older audience would have vivid memories of Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn in the classic 1981 film of the play.
Yet this six-person cast succeeded in creating the fondness which holds the characters together, as well as the tensions which drive them apart: father and daughter, father and daughter’s suitors, as well as father and mother.
The action of the play is basically the return of Ethel and Norman to their longstanding summer home, and the arrival of their daughter with her new boyfriend and his son.
Norman is a retired academic, with a morbid interest in his own mortality, who is nevertheless able to be playful and to show a capacity for enthusiasm (for fishing and for goading his daughter’s suitors).
The cantankerous Norman was played by Andy Long, and he remains a sympathetic character – not just because of Andy’s moving portrayal of his panic when he forgets how to get home, or when he suffers a heart seizure, but because he has most of the wittiest lines. And this is a very witty play.
Despite a sometimes hesitant delivery, which occasionally slowed the pace of the dialogue, Andy ensured that we warmed to Norman – especially when he adopts the “jive talk” of Reece Paul’s confident and believable adolescent character Billy, son of Norman’s daughter’s latest suitor. Seventy-nine-year-old Norman’s offer to 69-year-old Ethel to dance or “suck face” was a wonderful moment.
The dialogue between Norman and this latest suitor Bill (excellently played by Bob Skinley) was one of the highlights of the play for this reviewer – as Bill tried to negotiate the treacherous waters of Norman’s wit and wicked playfulness, to establish whether he would be permitted to sleep in the same bed as Norman’s daughter during their visit to Golden Pond. Bill physically circles his target and moves from embarrassment and hesitancy to a rehearsed forcefulness which succeeds in winning Norman’s admiration, more or less.
On Golden Pond is set in Maine, New England. The careful lighting and art work in this production combined well to create the atmosphere and setting. The American accents were not always as convincing.
Chris Geldard did a superlative job, with a good proportion of the script held by her character, in maintaining the accent and in creating the delightful Ethel, Norman’s long-suffering wife. She conveyed a romantic side – listening for the loons (great northern divers or immer geese) at the window and admiring the details of Golden Pond, while demonstrating her practical skills packing, tidying, cooking and nurturing the other characters; she was patient but explosive – putting up with Norman’s depressive grumpiness but not with her daughter Chelsea’s unrelenting criticisms of her upbringing. Chris managed these aspects of Ethel’s character with an energy and enthusiasm which made it clear why she had been cast in this role.
Her daughter Chelsea tries her best to be reconciled to her father, who she feels was always disappointed in her achievements – and appearance. Donna Marie Leask conveyed her sadness and frustration with sensitive conviction. She portrayed her relationship with the disappointed postie Charlie (Karl Ward), with similar sensitivity. Their long-established affection was very well drawn by both actors. I would have liked to hear more of Charlie’s famous laugh – admired by Ethel and referred to by Norman.
Karl plays a comfortable, ordinary guy and he succeeds in creating a poignant picture of his devotion to Chelsea, a devotion which echoes the key players’ love for each other. When Ethel says “You really are the sweetest man in the world. And I’m the only one who knows”, you appreciate the depth of her loyalty to this thorny partner.
On Golden Pond is essentially a romantic play but it is also very funny – even farcical when you hear the conversation between the operator (played by Mandy Phillips) and Norman who, checking to see if the phone works, is unable to tell his number, or remember why the tolerant operator calls him back.
The scene when Norman and Billy are going fishing, unaware that Ethel is also awake, is similarly farcical, with characters and props moving around the stage to the amusement of the audience but the bewilderment of the characters.
On Golden Pond succeeds in making the audience laugh, as well as moving us with its adroit handling of the eternal themes of love, regret, age and disappointment. This production rewarded the courage of the director and players, greatly entertaining a packed Garrison Theatre.