Keith Baker and Jeanne Lehman star in the classic play ‘On Golden Pond’ by Ernest Thompson, on stage through Feb. 10
By Samantha Bambino
Holy macanoli, Bristol Riverside Theatre has done it again.
After charming audiences with two hit shows — the one-woman Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End and the original musical The Rivals — BRT is now three-for-three in its 2018–2019 season.
On Thursday, Jan. 24, the heartwarming play On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson, which runs until Feb. 10, was met with standing ovations, laughter and even tears as attendees reflected on love, family, and just how quickly life can pass us by.
On Golden Pond centers around elderly couple Norman and Ethel Thayer, who have returned to their quaint summer home by the water for the 48th year. Norman is portrayed by BRT’s artistic director Keith Baker, a brilliant casting decision that incited murmurs of, “Oh my gosh, it’s Keith,” the moment he appeared on stage.
Baker, whose character is about to celebrate his 80th birthday, manages to bring a perfect mixture of curmudgeonly humor and vulnerability to the role. It’s instantly clear Norman is starting to slow down in his old age. He suffers from early signs of memory loss, and his heart medication is never out of reach.
Despite constant thoughts of Norman’s impending, unavoidable death, Baker maintains a sarcastic wit and endless one-liners, leaving audiences constantly chuckling. Baker plays effortlessly off Jeanne Lehman (Broadway’s Beauty & the Beast), who stars as Ethel. While her counterpart has a snarky, glass-half-empty attitude, Lehman’s version of Ethel exudes an air of unshakeable positivity. She endearingly refers to Norman as her “poop,” and refuses to believe they’re past the halfway point in life.
“We’re not middle-aged,” he tells her. “You’re old and I’m ancient.”
Even comments like this don’t get Ethel down as she sets out to pick strawberries and make a fresh batch of Toll House chocolate chip cookies.
All is relatively quiet throughout the beginning of On Golden Pond, giving audiences ample time to know and understand the couple as they prepare their house for the summer ahead. But that peace and serenity is broken with the arrival of Charlie the mailman. Played by Michael Satow (Time Stands Still), Charlie is a local guy the Thayers’ daughter Chelsea, whom no one has seen in eight years, dated on and off.
Though Satow only has two scenes, they’re some of the most memorable in the entire show. With a booming Boston-esque accent and constant outbursts of, “Holy macanoli,” Satow is a comedic force to be reckoned with on stage. After nearly every line, he emits an over-the-top laugh and, though it borders on obnoxious at first, it quickly becomes infectious. By the end of his second appearance, theater-goers will find themselves laughing right along with him.
As On Golden Pond progresses, audiences are introduced to Chelsea, the estranged daughter of the Thayers who is played by BRT veteran Eleanor Handley (Lost in Yonkers, Witness for the Prosecution). After a lifetime of failing to live up to his supposedly unrealistic expectations, Chelsea’s relationship with her father is all but shattered. She has a constant chip on her shoulder and refers to him as “Norman,” but makes it a point to attend his birthday party, bringing along her new boyfriend Bill Ray (Danny Vaccaro, The Producers) and his teenage son Billy Ray (Henry Parker).
Handley and Baker share a dynamic chemistry on stage. There’s tension, anger and hurt as Chelsea and Norman attempt to address the demons they’ve been battling for years. It’s a tough, tedious process, but the least likely person helps to melt some of Norman’s cynical, icy heart — Billy.
Sporting fire socks, a baggy hoodie and Vans sneakers, Billy is your typical angsty teen who only cares about skateboarding and girls. But he and Norman somehow make the perfect duo, breaking down their hard exteriors and introducing the other to new ideas. While Billy receives lessons in fishing and French, Norman learns all about “sucking face.” Parker holds his own next to Baker and the cast of seasoned actors, delivering a standout performance in his theatrical debut.
At nearly ever turn, On Golden Pond is absolutely touching, encompassing virtually everything one could want in a show. There’s comedy, drama and a ton of bittersweet emotion as the characters cope with regret and the unstoppable passage of time.
But some things, like the sound of the lake (and that darn screen door always falling off its hinges), never change.
Performances of On Golden Pond run Tuesday through Sunday until Feb. 10. Tickets start at $33, with discounts for students, groups and military personnel. Tickets are available by visiting brtstage.org or calling the BRT box office at 215–785–0100. Bristol Riverside Theatre is located at 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com