The year is 1978. We’re in the summer lakeside home of a retired professor and his wife somewhere in the more desirable parts of Maine. Norman Thayer Jnr’s past profession may have provided a lifestyle of creature comforts for his wife and daughter, but his real lifelong one is being curmudgeonly, treating everyone from spouse to postman as though they were particularly dim first-year students.
His wife copes. His daughter has escaped into a failed marriage and subsequent relationships. Most of the other people with whom he has contact just say “Oh, that’s Norman” and shrug aside his need always to be top-dog. But lurking in the bushes is the onset of memory loss, not to mention a heart-murmur. Remember that we’re still at a time when Alzheimer’s Disease was not yet the verbal fig-leaf for senile dementia.
The play is, of course, Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond – you probably know it best in the award-winning film version. This being a Middle Ground production by Michael Lunney, the emphasis is on the text and it takes its time in bringing out all the nuanced layers of the characters’ interaction. The cast rises to the challenge, and meets it for the most part victoriously.
Richard Johnson is extremely good as Norman, cack-handed when he attempts anything physical – such as mending the hinges on the fly-screen doors or shifting either furniture or pieces of luggage. As Johnson’s portrayal builds, so does our understanding of Norman as a human-being, for all his flaws. It’s a characterisation which dominates the play without ever overbalancing it.