"On Golden Pond": Presented by The Actors Group at The Yellow Brick Studio, 625 Keawe St., 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through July 27. Tickets $10. Call 722-6941 or e-mail for tickets.

Cast of ‘Golden Pond’
excels at making it real

Senility, bigotry and heart disease are rarely ingredients for a comedy, but The Actors Group production of "On Golden Pond" is an exception.

Jim Tharp, who starred as Norman Thayer when the Barefoot Players presented the play at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 1998, gives TAG's staging a solid foundation.

Norman is a few days away from his 80th birthday and feels his life is ebbing as he and his wife, Ethel, arrive at their summer home in Maine. Norman's acerbic wit is still razor-sharp, but his short-term memory is eroding. Norman also has heart problems, and cracks jokes about whether his mind or his body will wear out first.

As if that's not enough for Ethel to deal with, Norman is also a bigot. Playwright Ernest Thompson keeps that character flaw a relatively minor issue, but we hear enough from Norman to learn that one of the reasons he enjoys vacationing in Maine is that "Eye-talians" and Jews aren't often found there.

Victoria Gail-White, left, as Chelsea, and Jan McGrath as Chelsea's mother, Ethel, sing "Camp Koochakiyi."

Thompson allows the larger story of the couple's relationship to emerge slowly as they experience a pivotal summer. That it isn't going to be just another summer at the lake becomes apparent when the couple's estranged daughter, Chelsea, arrives with her new boyfriend and his teenage son.

Chelsea and her beau, a Los Angeles dentist named Bill Ray, are going to Europe for a month. Will her parents allow young Billy Ray to stay with them at the lake for a month?

That is, will Norman allow the boy to stay? Chelsea is 42, childless, divorced and still working through her problematic relationship with her father. Norman was apparently a stern and oppressive father whom Chelsea was never able to please, and he still doesn't seem to think much of her. Will Norman -- she doesn't think of him as "Dad" or "Father" -- allow her to have a month in Europe alone with her boyfriend?

Norman does, and discovers not only the son he never had but a new joy in living as well.

Tharp is the core player in an excellent cast, and playing Norman is a great opportunity for him. The role not only follows his memorable performance in "The Weir" but also reaffirms the fact that he can play complex characters as well as the lovable old geezer roles he's generally consigned to.

Tharp's success at suggesting the experience of short-term memory loss is chilling. The facial cues and body language he uses during an exchange with John Wythe White (Bill Ray) make an important revelation seem natural. A later scene opposite Victoria Gail-White (Chelsea) also feels authentic thanks to Tharp's skill in showing how Norman is working through the new information he's receiving.

Even first-timers who don't know these people, and who may laugh at some of Norman's early blunders while cringing at his bombast, will come to care about what happens to him and his family.

Although Tharp is the foundation, director David C. Farmer has assembled a fine cast around him.

Jan McGrath plays Ethel with a bit less tartness than Jo Pruden did in 1998, but she creates an equally appealing portrayal of a strong woman. Ethel loves Norman, faults and all, and has long since worked out strategies for dealing with his quirks. McGrath is a perfect counterpart to Tharp throughout, and makes the scenes without him equally rich and vibrant.

Gail-White delivers an uncomfortably good portrayal of a 40-something adult who can't help reverting to "child" status when confronted by a domineering parent, and who works to improve the relationship.

John Wythe White does an excellent job in his big scene opposite Tharp as Norman and Bill have a man-to-man conversation about the sleeping arrangements: Does Norman mind if his daughter and her new boyfriend share a bed while they're visiting? Norman sees the conversation as an opportunity to humiliate the younger man with mind games; Bill, who doesn't want to give offense but knows when he's being toyed with, deftly parries Norman's verbal assaults and earns the older man's respect.

Geoff Suthers makes an impressive community theater debut as young Billy. It's all too easy for wisecracking teen characters to be played in a heavy-handed sitcom style, but Suthers avoids cheapening the role by overplaying it.

Bill Carr completes Farmer's excellent cast with an engaging portrayal of the good-natured but dull-witted local yokel mailman who was Chelsea's first boyfriend.

And, if the Thayers' cottage looks suspiciously similar to Brendon's pub from "The Weir," it's because, yes, Paul Guncheon's basic set from the earlier TAG show has been neatly refurbished with a fresh collection of photos, family mementos and other props.

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