Family ties that bind - and often fray
James Earl Jones headlines 'On Golden Pond' on Broadway
Most people probably don't think of "On Golden Pond" as a comedy. But audiences are doing more laughing than crying at the Broadway revival of the play, which officially opened this week and stars James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams.Skip to next paragraph
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In the almost 30 years since "On Golden Pond" was first performed here, it's been translated into 25 languages and made into an iconic movie starring Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. The latest Broadway version gives the public an opportunity to see the inhabitants of the picturesque Maine summer house in a different light - offering a production truer to the playwright's original vision (read: funnier, less sentimental), and an African-American cast that reinforces the play's universal themes.
"This production of 'On Golden Pond,' I think, is as funny if not the funniest production that I've ever seen, and I think it's because they're not playing it for laughs," says playwright Ernest Thompson, who won an Oscar for the film's adapted screenplay. "This is a very strong cast, and I think that that is helping the ... continuity of the piece."
At the center of the show is Mr. Jones - the voice of Verizon and Darth Vader - whose part consists largely of one-liners that highlight the crustiness of Norman Thayer Jr., a retired professor coming to terms with his advancing years. The Tony-winning actor, who is back on Broadway for the first time in nearly two decades, says the character is unwittingly humorous - affected at times by seeming senility and his literal approach to the world.
"When [his wife] says to him, 'I see you have on a tie,' he says, 'Yes, I know, I put it there.' Who says things like that? And you don't know whether he's being funny, or being clever. It's hard to tell. I play him as if he's not trying to be funny," says Jones, in a telephone interview.
To distinguish himself from the Normans who have gone before, Jones has paid close attention to director Leonard Foglia's guidance, and to his own instincts. "I can only say it the way I feel and understand," he says. "I am a physical type, I am a vocal type, and certain things sort of guide my interpretation. I'm loud, and I try to be loud enough to be heard."
The script was not rewritten to accomodate the primarily African-American cast, which includes Ms. Uggams as Norman's devoted but strong wife Ethel, and Linda Powell (daughter of Colin Powell, the former secretary of state) as their estranged daughter, Chelsea.
So each night Jones utters Norman's bigoted remarks about blacks and Jewish people (he explains to his postman in one scene that there are no native Jews, "Negroes," or Puerto Ricans in the state of Maine).
The playwright had expected to be asked to make changes for the current cast. But Jones insisted that nothing be altered. "What James Earl said to me was, 'Do you not think that there's prejudice within the black community?' "