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“On Golden Pond” charms at Sutter Street Theatre

By: Gerry Camp
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I look forward every year to the play Janelle and Stephen Kauffman’s “Give Us A Hand Productions” brings to Folsom’s Sutter Street Theatre. Kauffman is one of my favorite actors, and he always disappears into the character he portrays. He and his director (and wife) Janelle always presents a classic of American theatre in which, in Sutter Street’s motto, “The art is in the entertainment.”

Their offering this year is one of their best, Ernest Thompson’s beloved “On Golden Pond,” playing weekends through Aug. 19. Kauffman is perfect as curmudgeonly retired professor Norman Thayer, who as the play opens is returning with his wife Ethel to their summer home in Maine where Norman will celebrate his 18th birthday.  

Ethel is played brilliantly by Sutter Street’s treasure, Eileen Beaver. Beaver, the company’s resident costumer, is also a wonderful actress and is at her best here as Ethel. She clearly loves Norman and puts up with his sarcastic humor and lack of interest in the neighbors as well as his sardonic comments on old age and approaching death. In fact, he is having memory problems, and at one point gets lost going out to pick strawberries.

Dropping in from time-to-time is mailman Charlie Martin, enthusiastically played by Ken Watkins, who was in love with the Norman’s daughter Chelsea when they were young and clearly still has feelings for her.

Norman and Ethel are soon visited by Chelsea (Lori Ackerman), their divorced daughter who, with her fiancé Bill Ray (the excellent John Hopkins), is on the way to Europe. They bring with them Bill’s 13-year-old son Billy, played by Jihan Moon in the opening weeks as a bright, enthusiastic boy with his own wicked sense of humor.

It becomes clear that there are bad feelings between Chelsea and her father, and Norman initially gives Bill his usual sarcastic treatment, but warms to him when Bill asserts himself. Chelsea and Bill ask Ethel and Norman to take care of Billy while they travel. Norman is initially uninterested, but begins to develop a bond with Billy over reading and fishing.

When Chelsea and Bill return from Europe, Norman and Billy have become pals, sneaking out of the house early mornings to go fishing. Chelsea confides to Ethel that she grew up estranged from her father because she never could seem to be what he wanted her to be. She decides to tell him how she feels, and the two decide to try to relate to each other better in the future.

While packing in September to go home, Norman suffers what he thinks is a heart attack. Ethel administers his medication, and he soon recovers. They go out together to say goodbye to Golden Pond.

What can you say about a play in which nothing happens except the changes that any family goes through? Well, when it is as charmingly written as “On Golden Pond,” with all-too-human characters portrayed by actors who make them live on stage; you have to say this is a show you won’t want to miss.