John Peakes is back, in all his glory and at the top of his game, as the archetypal aging gentleman Norman Thayer in the Purple Rose Theater production of “On Golden Pond.”
No question, Norman Thayer is at the heart of this play, the crusty and churlish curmudgeon with a hidden heart of pure gold. Thanks to Peakes’ exquisite tongue-in-cheek comic timing and the deadpan stoicism of his expressions, Thayer prompts smiles and laughs and more than a few moments of tears welling up in our eyes, as we see evocations of our long-gone white-haired grandparents, our aging, grey-haired parents and, at times, even glimpses of ourselves.
While not all seniors have the soft landing of those who have a Golden Pond cottage retreat, for those who have had this experience, it is easy to relate to the quiet sameness, the annual ritualistic customs of saying hello and then goodbye to the lake, putting on the same old rumpled hats, listening to the loons, trudging into the woods to pick the smallest of strawberries, the biggest and bluest of blueberries, the blackest of blackberries and to perform the ritual of catching the biggest of the bass.
Jan Radcliff is Norman´s considerably younger wife, Ethel, who flits and flutters around the stage, smoothing out the moments when Norman has lost his way, containing his confusions, getting him out of his rut when he gets caught up in a continuing preoccupation with death. Radcliff is convincingly over-attentive, the quintessential care-giving and doting, loving spouse.
A midsummer visit from their adult daughter, Chelsea, portrayed by Rhiannon Ragland, provides the central dynamic to the play: the resolving of painful developmental emotional issues between adult children and their parents.
Chelsea has never gotten over not feeling good enough, smart enough, loved enough, perfect enough for dear old Norman (she never calls him Dad), who keeps his emotions close to the vest.
Chelsea´s dropping off of her 12-year-old stepson, Billy Ray, to the summer at Golden Pond while Chelsea honeymoons in Italy with Bill (Tom Whelen) provides an opening for reconciliation; young Billy stirs Norman’s long-suppressed sympathies. Ragland presents a knotted, constricted version of Chelsea — perhaps a tad too intensely — that shows both long-unresolved anger and deep psychic pain, while Milo Tucker Meyer portrays a fresh-faced guileless urban teenager, who is apparently the only one capable of getting around Norman’s gruff defenses.
David Daoust adds character in the role of rural mailman Charlie Martin.
“On Golden Pond” is one of those perfectly timed summer plays, paralleling what many Michiganders might do on a summer weekend, and yet poignantly reminding all of us that nothing is permanent. Even summer sunsets do not go on forever.
Purple Rose Theatre
137 Park St., Chelsea
Through Sept. 1 (Peakes performs through Aug. 4)
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