Why a four-decade-old play and movie has even more resonance today

l-r: Alex Guazzo (Billy Ray), Bonnie Clark (Ethel Thayer), Jack McConnell (Norman Thayer), Wharton Donaldson (Charlie Martin), Doug Denton (Bill Ray), and Heather Snipes (Chelsea Thayer Waynep) in On Golden Pond. Photo by Tom McGow

In the nearly four decades since Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond opened on Broadway in 1979, an aging population makes the play’s two elderly central characters even more poignant, and Brevard Little Theatre’s production of the play this month even more relevant for contemporary audiences. “Hopefully my cast and I will be able to transmit to audiences how relationships require compassion, patience and understanding, especially during the aging process,” says the play’s director, Bonnie Whitmire, who’s directed two previous productions for the theater since settling in Brevard in 2012.

The play gained a wider audience in its 1981 film adaptation starring Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn — both actors won Oscars — as the elderly Norman and Ethel Thayer returning to their lakeside cottage for their forty-eighth summer and Jane Fonda as their daughter Chelsea, recently divorced, who arrives with her fiancé and his teenaged son. Curmudgeonly Norman is struggling with heart trouble and deteriorating memory and has had a troubled relationship with his daughter; Ethel is contending with her growing role as Norman’s caretaker and as peacemaker between Norman and Chelsea, while the presence of an adolescent in their midst affects the family dynamics in unexpected ways.

“The challenge for me is portraying Norman as somewhat forgetful but still enjoying mind games with the other characters,” says veteran BLT cast member Jack McConnell, who last year played King Arthur in the theater’s production of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. While Norman turns 80 during the course of the play, McConnell notes he himself is “only 76. My real-life wife thinks this is typecasting.”

Heather Snipes plays Chelsea, her latest role in a string of productions during the last three years, from the Agatha Christie evergreen A Murder is Announced to a female version of The Odd Couple.

“What I hope people come away with is that parents do the best they can with the tools they have in their box, and kids need to understand this and try and forgive their parents for perceived childhood pains,” she says. “They need to do what our characters do in the play, which is reach out and communicate, try to understand each other’s perspective and find a way to heal those wounds.”

Brevard Little Theatre’s production of On Golden Pond will be presented for nine performances, February 9-11, 16-18, and 23-25, with evening performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and matinees on Sundays at 3pm. $18/general, $12/student. For more information, visit thebrevardlittletheatre.org or call 828-884-2587.

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