“On Golden Pond” is a familiar quantity, having been a hit movie in 1981 with career-capping performances by Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn.
Both of them won Oscars.
Yet a third person, hardly a household name, also won an Oscar for that movie: Ernest Thompson, who won for best adapted screenplay.
And even though Fonda and Hepburn were responsible for a great deal of the movie’s appeal, Thompson’s literate and emotional script made it all work. After all, this script had already worked three years before, both off-Broadway and on-Broadway, without the benefit of a Fonda or a Hepburn.
The Spokane Civic Theatre revives Thompson’s original stage version of “On Golden Pond” beginning Friday. While the stage version differs somewhat from the movie, it is nearly the same at the core. It’s about an elderly couple spending the sunset of their lives at their New England lakeside home. The husband, a retired professor, is becoming increasingly afraid of his failing vigor (and failing memory). When a young boy shows up for the summer, the old man’s vigor and confidence are restored.
Those who remember the movie may also remember that the plot is not necessarily the most important element of “On Golden Pond.” The complicated relationships of parents and children and husbands and wives are the true story.
Some critics recognized its strengths immediately when it opened off-Broadway in 1978.
” ‘On Golden Pond’ is essentially a play of character and lines and scenes, rather than a plot,” wrote Edith Oliver in the New Yorker. “… What courage it must have taken for Mr. Thompson, in the 1970s, to write a play with so much affection in it! Far more affection than sentimentality, for all of the feelings ring true.”
Not everyone thought so. Clive Barnes of the New York Post said, “If you can bear people being constantly lovable for about two hours, this could well be your cup of molasses.”
So many people thought it was their cup of molasses that it zipped from off-Broadway to Broadway right away, with acclaimed performances by Frances Sternhagen and Tom Aldredge in the two main roles. Then Hollywood came calling and it became a star vehicle. Not only did it have Hepburn and Fonda, but it also had the other Fonda - Jane - playing the daughter. This bit of family casting had an outsized significance at the time, since the Fondas seemed to be a living symbol of the generation gap.
The Civic’s production is directed by Charles Kenfield, a local director and composer who has shown a deft hand with similar material in “The Old Lady’s Guide to Survival.”
The two main roles are played by Pamela E. Long, a veteran local actress, and Ed Cornachio, who is making his Civic Main Stage debut.
Other roles are filled by Robin Kropff, Stephen S. Warner, Ryan C. Murphy and Craig Ricketts.
One postscript: “On Golden Pond” was Thompson’s first play, written when he was only 28. Since then, he has written a couple of movies, a couple of plays and a novel. None of them have made much of a splash. He lives with his family near “Golden Pond” - Lake Winnepausekee in New Hampshire.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ON STAGE “On Golden Pond” opens Friday and continues Saturday, Sunday, Jan. 14-16, 18-19, 21-23 and 29-31. All shows are at 8 p.m. except for Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults, $9 for seniors and $7 for students. Call 325-2507 or (800) 446-9576 for reservations. The Spokane Civic Theatre is located at 1020 N. Howard.
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