Family ties that bind - and often fray

James Earl Jones headlines 'On Golden Pond' on Broadway

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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?' "

Ms. Uggams, who stepped in for an ailing Diahann Carroll just days prior to the production's debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington last year, agrees with the decision, saying bigotry has no color barrier. "We all have people in our families who don't like anybody, so there was no need for that to be changed," she says in an interview at the Cort Theatre.

Jones is reluctant to comment on his position, having been misunderstood in the past. "It often gets printed that I believe in those remarks, that I'm bigoted or that the play is suggesting bigotry.... I've given up trying to explain it, because America is still so obsessed with race and racism." He does say he believes in the integrity of the original writing, and suggests why Norman might make such remarks. "He probably was a very good professor ... probably a very responsible person about things like bigotry. Now that he's retired, he's free to indulge in it," says Jones.

If Norman's orneriness is more apparent in the play than in the film, so perhaps, is Ethel's firmness. Unlike Ms. Hepburn's Ethel, who was more physically affectionate with Chelsea, for example, Uggams plays the role with a bit more edge - using Nancy Reagan, with whom she is acquainted, as the model of a woman who is a wife first, mother second.

People may not think of "On Golden Pond" as humorous because they brought a lot of baggage about the actors with them when they saw the movie, says Uggams, also a Tony-winner. They were focused on the health of the leads, and on Mr. Fonda's own bumpy relationship with his daughter Jane, who played Chelsea. "When I read the play, I thought, 'Wow, these people are funny. They're not trying to be, but they're funny.' "

Jones doesn't remember the story of the Thayers as being that humorous. "I took the movie very seriously, I took it as a study in fragility, and in fragile, damaged relationships in families, and I loved it."

"There are a lot of ironies that people laugh at, not because they're funny, but because they recognize them and appreciate the poetic ironies," he says.

"On Golden Pond" was the result of Thompson's musings in his late 20s about the end of an era - the end of a time when he could hole up at his family's lake house in Maine between the time school let out in June and Labor Day. "Norman and Ethel Thayer became sort of metaphors for that, because they're also in a time of transition." Eventually, he says, the play became more about a long marriage, a troubled father-daughter relationship, and the re-vivifying effects of a young boy (Chelsea's boyfriend's son) on an old man. "Critics generally don't like this play very much, " Thompson says in a phone interview, citing, among other things, that it probably feels old-fashioned to them.

Even he is sometimes amazed at its longevity. After he directed a television version starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in 2001, he figured "no one would ever want to know about 'On Golden Pond' again." Instead, it's more produced than ever, he says. "It doesn't go away, and I'm starting to have to just make my peace with that."

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