The Human Race Theatre muses on age, family in ‘On Golden Pond’

By Jacqui Theobold

Photo: (l-r) Charlie Clark, Jennifer Joplin, and Dale Hodges in the Human Race Theatre’s ‘On Golden Pond,’ running through April 23photos: Scott J. Kimmins

You can almost hear the gentle lap of the pond that seems somehow to exist exactly where the audience sits, at least when the characters peer at them through the long row of imaginary windows, observing the water. The comfy Maine cabin is furnished with fishing poles and nostalgia. It holds a family’s history and love, wild strawberries, biscuits, and unresolved angst.

The Human Race Theatre Company has created a gentle, believable world in “On Golden Pond,” the latest endeavor in its 30th anniversary season. The play, written by Ernest Thomson and directed by Richard Hess, is cast with actors who bring an extraordinary warmth and connectedness to the 38-year-old classic, running at the Loft Theatre through April 23.

Many people will remember the film version starring the father-daughter team of Henry and Jane Fonda, who were reputed to have held resentments of their own.

Another real life father-daughter acting team plays Norman Thayer and his daughter Chelsea at the Loft. Joneal and Jennifer Joplin are widely experienced and have worked together on stage many times, but never before on this show. The elder Joplin says, “This is joyous work,” and his real-life daughter beams.

In a recent interview together, the Joplins were comfortable in their own skins, interactive, and enthusiastic about the development of their characters, without a trace of hidden issues. They generously raved with great warmth about all aspects of the show and the other actors, as well as the achievements of the tech staff.

On stage, with subtle skill and certainty, the two can inhabit a space between words, commanding a significant silence that conveys implicit meaning.

The play begins as Norman Thayer and his wife, Ethel (played energetically by Dale Hodges), arrive at their Maine cottage to open it for their 48th summer. As they whip dust covers off the simple furniture, we get to know the dour, sarcastic, colorfully prejudiced former college professor and his patient wife. She understands and copes with him, conveying the depth of their relationship.

Charlie (Charlie Clark), a long time motorboat mailman, delivers a letter from the Thayers’ daughter, Chelsea, announcing an upcoming visit. He endures put-downs from Norman and reveals a history of having loved Chelsea. Clark imbues Charlie with a wild chuckle and a downeast Maine accent.

Chelsea arrives with hugs for “mommy,” distant greetings for Norman, then brings in her boyfriend and his teen son (Ken Early as Bill Ray and Kaleb Barlow as Billy Ray, respectively). The couple asks the Thayers to keep the boy for a month while they go off to Europe.

Bill, left alone with Norman briefly, establishes a don’t-mess-with-me stance, firmly delivered in one of the play’s moments of balance.

Debuting teen actor Barlow is energetic and engaging, and gives Norman the boy he may have wished Chelsea was. He holds his own and is convincingly audacious in just right amounts. He brings many light, humorous moments.

Norman handles the comedy moments with skill and great timing. Contrastingly, the intimations of aging, moments of failing memory, and the underlying fear of vulnerability are touchingly done. Ethel, with gesture and reaction, is empathic. Originally British, Hodges employs a convincing American accent.

As the play ends, the dust sheets back on the furniture again, the couple goes down to the water, perhaps for the last time. The audience, again becoming the lake, grows very quiet. Ethel has a lovely, small soliloquy. She acknowledges the beloved loons and the lake, both clearly important characters. She says, “We’ve come to say goodbye.” Is there a dry eye left in the house?

Scenic designer Mark Halpin and his creative crew replicated Maine so realistically, for a moment I thought a live wood was transported to the set. Be sure to take note of the giant evergreens, seen behind the open backed cabin through silhouetted shelves. It’s hard to believe that old-seeming building was recently bright, new wood.

The music sets expectations, mood, and background. Sound designer Jay Brunner has created a lovely, gentle melody, original music resting comfortably in place, unobtrusive but supportive. The sprightly pre-first curtain theme is especially appealing.

What do you wear to pick berries along a Maine country road? It’s as important to be realistically well worn and perhaps as challenging to present as a fancy dress. Costumer designer Kathie Brookfield has dressed her cast in appropriately old comfort clothes. The script even mentions Ethel’s old bathrobe. We see her in a well-loved, but not raggedy robe. Just right. Chelsea gets a becoming new lace top on her way home from Belgium.

John Rensel is lighting designer, of course. His work is always so perfect, though creative and subtle, that we may seldom notice its presence, yet the absence of it would be an obvious loss.

Lexi Muller has the everything-else job of stage manager. She keeps track of the details, many and minute, and keeps everything exactly where it must be, at all times.

The pauses and implications director Hess has found in this script highlight the subtlety of his very able actors.

“If you‘ve just seen the show, you know directing this was a work of pure love,” he remarks. “The cast has so many positive connections already established. This is such a sweet story, underneath.”

 

‘On Golden Pond’ runs through April 23 with performances Tuesday and Wednesday, April 18 and 19, at 7 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, April 20-22 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 23 at 2 p.m. in the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets range from $25-45. For tickets or more information, please visit TicketCenterSatge.com or
call 937.228.3630.

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Jacqui Theobald
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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