As the very fabric of society seemed to be unraveling in the 1970s, “On Golden Pond” came along to remind us that family is still the most important part of life. Or at least, to give the older generation a stage play they could watch instead of the tumultuous nightly news stories about drug abuse, civil rights riots and hippie communes practicing goodness knows what.
These days, watching “On Golden Pond” at Live Theatre Workshop is like looking into life’s rear-view mirror. Society has calmed down some, but families are even more fragmented today as single mothers, working mothers and stressed-out mothers with a couple of husbands in their history are now the norm.
The idea of family units with one lifelong set of parents seems kind of . . . quaint. That is exactly the type of family we meet in this play directed by Jeremy Thompson. Norman and Ethel are what used to be called “an old married couple.” They have lived their entire adult lives together. All the sharp edges have been worn off their relationship. Conflict has been smoothed into resolution. Perhaps their happiness has been tempered by compromise, but as they look back on a life together they are fairly content.
As Frank Sinatra sang it, “Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.” Of course, he was singing about life in the fast lane. Ethel and Norman spent their life together in the responsible lane.
Now those years of measured temperament could be ending as Norman’s health begins to decline. He’s none too happy about it. Neither is Ethel, forced to face living alone, while their grown daughter Chelsea feels estranged from her father and longs for togetherness.
Meanwhile, there’s Chelsea’s son, Billy Ray, who represents the up-and-coming generation. Will he accept the traditional values of his parents and grandparents? Or will he embrace a new world order of mixed races, diluted religions and perpetual war?
None of those answers are in “On Golden Pond,” but LTW’s solid production brings out all the questions implied in the play’s rich undertones. John Mills as Norman holds the play together with his portrayal of a guy using gruffness to ward off his fears.
Jan Aalberts matches him as Ethel, the compulsively optimistic person whose weapon of choice is the power of positive thinking.
Mills and Aalberts turn the play into a dance about family values, putting those buzz words into perspective. They jab and weave, punch and feint, getting themselves a little space to breathe without risking a permanent tear in the marriage.
Their performances remind us life is about balance. Kristi Ofstad Loera comes onstage as the anxious daughter Chelsea to upset that balance. She reminds us Norman may have kept his marriage together but he didn’t do his daughter any favors. The art of family has become a lost art, it seems. Nobody knows how to do it anymore.
Yet in our hearts we know Thompson is right about his “golden” family. People must learn to believe in and put their trust in one another. These lessons begin in the family. If there are no proper families, there will be no lessons. Or anyone to spend the summer listening to the loons “On Golden Pond.”
IF YOU GO
What: Live Theatre Workshop presents “On Golden Pond” by Ernest Thompson.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays to June 11.
Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.