Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” Charms Again At Canoga Park’s West Valley Playhouse


Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic
Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

It’s always a pleasure to see an old friend.  “On Golden Pond”, written by Ernest Thompson is a heart-warming comedy and certainly qualifies as an old acquaintance, if not a friend, whom I’ve enjoyed seeing many times over the years both as a play and a movie.

Besides, what’s not to like?  The play was a Tony Nominee and a New York Drama Desk award winner in 1997.  It’s been performed all over the world.  Now the time has come for it to be performed on the stage of the West Valley Playhouse, in Canoga Park (a section of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley), a long-time Member of LA Theatre Alliance and Valley Theatre League.

cc23ec63feef04b816d1693a8e3445ab-webThe story unless you’ve been living in a cave over the years is well known.  In short, it’s a tale that focuses on aging couple Ethel Thayer (Esther Rosen) and Norman Thayer (Paul Michael Nieman), who spend each summer at their get-away-home on a lake called Golden Pond.  During the year the story takes place, they are visited by daughter Chelsea (Heather Smith) with her fiancé – later as her husband – Bill Ray (Keith Lewis) and his son Billy, Jr. (Dorion Wilson, the night I attended).

The poignant drama explores the often stormy and prickly relationship Chelsea (Norman and Ethel’s only child), shared with her grumpy and curmudgeonly father growing up, and the difficulties faced by her aging parents in the twilight years of their marriage. The play made into a movie in 1981 had a cast that starred Henry Fonda and real-life daughter Jane Fonda; one of America’s acting family royalty, with the great Katherine Hepburn thrown in for good measure, as Ethel.

Playhouse Artistic Director and Producer Jon Berry, is favorably blessed with a wonderful cast  that convincingly transports the California audience to the cool and inviting woods of Maine – haunting loon calls and all.

Starring as Ethel, is Los Angeles actor Esther Rosen, who brings a fifty-year wealth of acting and directing experience to her performance.  One can really feel her love for both Norman and Chelsea.  She is a worthy facilitator and negotiator between her stubborn daughter and her even more stubborn husband, who would like to extend his love to Chelsea but can’t quite bring himself to do so.  Chelsea too, would like to be accepted by Norman but the distance between them is very wide, however, baby-steps toward closing that gap begin to appear on the horizon in the form of Bill, Sr. and his son Billy.

Starring as Norman is actor-singer and Pierce College administrator Paul Michael Nieman. Nieman and Rosen were last paired as Tevye and Golde in the playhouse’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” seen last season.  Nieman nicely captures the gruffness and whimsical sense of humor of crusty old Norman; turning him into a likable “old poop”, in spite of himself.

Keith Lewis as Bill, Sr. although briefly on stage, makes the most of it in his scenes with Norman, becoming one of the comedy’s funnier moments in Thompson’s play about family relationships.  Lovely Heather Smith with a 1 million watt smile, but a troubled heart over the distance between her father and herself turns in a finely judged performance as she neatly juggles her character’s mixed emotions.  Young Billy, Jr. portrayed by Dorion Wilson, is a real find when it comes to youngsters that can act, take direction, and deliver a believable performance.  He has a future in the “business” if he chooses to pursue a career as an actor.  Frank Dooley as Charley “Macanolly” Martin, the local postman and family friend, turns in a little gem of a performance in his brief on-stage appearances.

Director Berry and his creative team led by Set Designer Charles Hall provide a woodsy Maine cabin with enough space for the actors to perform their magic and the lights designed by Danny Truxaw paint Hall’s stage with lighting that allow the costumes designed by Don Nelson to be seen and appreciated.

“On Golden Pond” runs through November 2, 2014.  For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 818-884-1907.

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