Fine Performances Enliven “On Golden Pond”

How can you lose? Even if a play has a tired, occasionally trite and sappy script, if you cast two masterful actors as its main characters, the show can succeed and entertain.  Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ current production of Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” is a case in point.

Turned into a high profile, Oscar-generating film vehicle in 1981 for Henry Fonda and Kate Hepburn in the sunset of their careers, this play appears mostly as dinner or community theatre fare today. Yet, given the comedic strengths of the individual performances of CTD’s Jerry Russell and Sylvia Leudtke as protagonist couple Norman and Ethel, the performance warrants more enthusiastic attention.

Russell and Luedtke’s charming chemistry, the ease with which they play off of one another, conveys a depth of love and commitment that helps the labored script break through its superficial predictability. There is a sincere dignity in Russell’s Norman. He never “plays for laughs”, nor allows the curmudgeonly aspects of his character to mask over the reality of a frightened man aware of his own descent into dementia. No, he doesn’t express his love well, for either wife or grown daughter; But Russell gives wry glimpses of a kindly soul encased in a gruff shell, a very real human, not just a grumpy stereotype. Matching him one liner for one liner, Luedtke’s Ethel reveals why she has stayed with this grouch of a narcissist husband for 40+ years. She is the stronger half of the couple, the eternal optimist, the loving light to which he clings. Their jabs, their jokes, their habituated responses show a quality of marital commitment and gentle tolerance very unexpected to observe, in any time period. Both actors enliven their characters and the script with a realistic truth that may surpass what playwright Thompson envisioned.

All other characters in the play are foils for the two leads. They create a pleasant ensemble and provide some comic relief. Sue Loncar portrays the wayward adult daughter, imbuing the role with genuine poignancy, as revealed in a brief scene when she tries to reach out to her estranged father. Ms. Loncar has a great deal more to give as an actor than her role requires and verges on transforming the scene from sitcom interlude to serious drama. Under the guidance of director Michael Serrecchia, in his CTD directorial debut, Loncar and the rest of the cast support Norman and Ethel with believable performances. Also on stage are: Francis Henry, Lorenzo Salazar IV and Stan Graner. The set, sound, lights, costumes and props meet the usual superb levels CTD technical artists achieve. The entire production makes for an enjoyable evening, punctuated delightfully by some very fine acting.

“On Golden Pond” runs Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through October 26. 214-828-0094 http://www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com

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