July 5 2012 12:00 AM

BoarsHead Theater veteran John Peakes makes his Purple Rose debut in a role he played 20 years ago


Please don´t ask John Peakes about Henry Fonda and the fondly remembered 1981 film of “On Golden Pond.” Ernest Thompson‘s play is an entirely different animal, he insists.

“We don’t have their set, and this is not Jane Fonda and Katharine Hepburn that I’m playing against,” said the actor and co-founder of Lansing’s now-defunct BoarsHead Theater who is making his Purple Rose debut. “We’re not trying to recreate the movie. For half of the movie, they’re out in the boat, fishing and getting trapped in the water — that’s not even in the play. Any time a book or a play is made into a movie, you lose about half of it. This is a new creation.”

Yet it’s not entirely unfamiliar territory for the 79-year-old Peakes, who tackled the role of Norman Thayer Jr., a former professor who still casts an analytical eye on everyone around him, including his devoted wife, Ethel (Jan Radcliff), and his somewhat estranged daughter, Chelsea (Rhiannon Ragland).

“I did this role 20 years ago,” Peakes said, with a chuckle. “I was way too young; we used a lot of makeup. Now, I’m perfectly humbled and my mind is going, so I’m just right for this old-farty character.”  

Detroit Examiner critic Patty Nolan agreed: “Peakes’ subtle, intelligent performance lets us understand that Norman, in his day, was a force to be reckoned with, and is still a man whose cutting wit is as sharp as ever.” 

When asked about what accounts for the enduring appeal of “On Golden Pond,” Peakes didn’t need any time to come up with an answer.

“It is a sentimental play,” he said. “But actually it’s about what everyone in this world will go through at one time or another. You have people who are not too far from dying and the effort they make to face up to it. They make jokes about it, but (the play) is also about endurance and love, qualities that are universal. For those who don’t have those things, they come longing for it; for those who do, they see their story being told. Deep down, we all have a bit of sentimentality in us.”

Peakes also admires the play’s depiction of the love between Norman and Ethel, who are spending what they realize might be their last summer at their beloved cabin.

“They are saying goodbye to the lake, to the summer, to other people, but they’re still hanging on. She calls him a tough old buzzard, and that’s what they are: They’re buzzards, hanging on, keeping the spirit and keeping the blood flowing.”

Due to “late summer commitments” in his homebase of Philadelphia, Peakes will perform through Aug. 5; Richard Henzel (who was seen last year in Stormfield Theatre’s “Heroes”) takes over for the remainder of the run. 

Peakes said he’s delighted by his Purple Rose experience. “It’s a wonderful theater that treats its guests wonderfully,” he said. “It’s because they care about the people. They care about interns that make the damn theater possible. It’s a nice group of people, and I’m delighted to be here.”

Peakes couldn’t resist following up that thought with a classic George Burns one-liner: “Of course, at my age I’m delighted to be anywhere.”

'On Golden Pond'

Purple Rose Theatre

137 Park St., Chelsea

Through Sept. 1

3 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 p.m. Sundays

$25 Wednesdays and Thursdays; $35 Fridays and Saturday and Sunday matinees; $40 Saturday evenings

(734) 433-7673