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Review: “On Golden Pond”

"On Golden Pond" at Melbourne Civic Theatre

“On Golden Pond” at Melbourne Civic Theatre

Actors Bill Lembeck and Linda Lawson Jones show how it’s done in Melbourne Civic Theatre’s top rate production of “On Golden Pond.”

Written by Ernest Thompson, this 1979 play concerns an aging couple — Norman and Ethel Thayer. Every year, they spend the summer at a lakeside home at Golden Pond in Maine. But this year, a quiet urgency underscores the annual trip. It slowly becomes clear that Norman’s memory is slipping. Ethel, ever the optimist, cheers her husband on to help him celebrate his 80th birthday.

But rather than dwell on a dimming future, this production, directed by Peg Girard, exalts the rich history and abiding love the couple have for one another. Here, the action and dialogue are filled with humor and warmth, which the actors deliver with expert ease.

Joining the Thayers are their long absent daughter, Chelsea, her fiance Bill and his son, Billy. The surly 13-year old soon develops a close relationship with Norman, something that Chelsea never had. Adding to that, while Ethel is upbeat around Norman, when it comes to Chelsea’s problems, she becomes dour and impatient. There is obviously a history of tension and hurt feelings in the family, amplified by the fact that Chelsea decided against having children of her own.

This is the point where the emotions can drive the action into melodrama and make characters insufferable. But Ms. Girard avoids that trap by keeping actors Tynan Pruett (Chelsea), David Baum (Bill) and Kyle Caudill (Billy) on a direct course without self-indulgent “why-can’t-you-love-me-the-way-I-want-you-to” emotion.

Indeed, Ms. Girard’s director’s concept of “On Golden Pond” may not meet what you expect. Yes, Norman still grumbles and grouses, but not so much that he becomes irritating and unlikeable the way other actors have portrayed him.

Here, Mr. Lembeck maintains a human core to Norman. He is funny and intellectually adroit. His love for the character infects the audience and we end up loving Norman as well.

Ms. Jones continues to be a stage marvel. This former professional actress made her Brevard debut as Big Mama in Surfside’s production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Like she did in that excellent portrayal, here, she brings such a natural, realistic quality to the stage that we feel we know Ethel.

In fact, at the performance I attended, a man sitting near me remarked, with a poignant break in his voice, “she’s just like my wife.”

Now that’s what good theater will do — reach beyond the footlights and grab your heart.

Dan Wilkerson does a splendid job in his role of Charlie Martin, the good-hearted mailman who has pined after Chelsea all his life.

Scenic designer Caroline Osborne creates a very functional and attractive setting for the lake house. Alan Selby’s lighting design advances mood and time nicely. Alice Henning’s costumes advance character perfectly. And Wendy Reader’s sound design is atmospheric; however, using music to underscore dramatic tension on stage is superfluous and feels a bit like a sign telling the audience how they’re supposed to feel.

Yes, you’ve probably seen “On Golden Pond” many times. However, my bet is you’ve not seen it performed like this. MCT’s production is sweet, funny and so endearing that you’ll wish the Thayers would invite you up to their lake house for a long weekend.

And how nice that Ms. Girard chose to produce a play that so beautifully showcases some of Brevard’s very best actors.

Side O’ Grits: “On Golden Pond” runs through Feb. 24 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. It performs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. $23 to $25. Call 321-723-6935 or visit www.mymct.org.