If you go
When: Today through April 29. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays.Where: Lawrence Community Theatre, 1501 N.H.Tickets: $14-$20Ticket info: 843-7469
Is it a funny play with serious undertones? Or a serious play with comic relief?
It's really tough to tell with "On Golden Pond."
One thing's for sure: Both the comedy and the serious story line rely entirely on the relationships among the play's six characters.
Those relationships shine in the Lawrence Community Theatre's production of the Ernest Thompson play, which opened Friday and runs through April 29.
The show (made famous by a 1981 movie) tells the story of Norman and Ethel Thayer, who are spending their 48th consecutive summer on Golden Pond. Norman is showing signs of his 80 years and is convinced this may be his last summer there.
That changes, though, when his estranged daughter, Chelsea, shows up at the pond with her boyfriend and her boyfriend's son. When they leave the son, Billy, at the cabin for a month, Norman rediscovers his zeal for life - and begins a new relationship with the daughter from whom he had grown apart.
First thing's first: Co-leads Dean Bevan (Norman) and Betty Laird (Ethel) are outstanding. There's a ton of dialogue in this play, and they, in particular, make it seem like it really is conversation, not just lines in a script.
Not many plays feature leading roles for older adults, so "On Golden Pond" is a wonderful showcase of two talents that might otherwise be pushed to the periphery.
The relationship between Ethel and Norman is established first, and it's characterized by Norman's sarcastic, stubborn sense of humor and the way Ethel serves as both the straight man - or "straight woman" - and someone who knows how to deal with her husband's shenanigans.
Bevan and Laird just act like an old married couple. They seem real.
As new characters are added into the mix, the pairings seem to work on both the comedic and dramatic levels. For example, Chelsea (Peggy Sampson) and Ethel capture perfectly that moment when mother and daughter see each other for the first time after a duration apart, and later work through the type of tensions that most people can understand through their own families' experiences.
And the apprentice-teacher relationship between Norman and Billy is funny and poignant. Billy teaches the old man his lingo, and Norman teaches the young teen to fish.
Though most of the focus is on the characters played by Laird and Bevan, the other four characters are solid in their roles.
Scott Richardson (Billy) shows a lot of poise for a junior high student. Several times, he had the presence of mind to pause for laughter before continuing with his lines. Jeff Blair (Charlie, the mailman) provides the most knee-slapping humor, with excellent comic timing. Sampson is believable as a daughter looking to reconnect to her past.
And Chris Price (Billy's father, Bill) has a smaller role but an important scene that involves an exchange with Norman, in which the two talk about sex minutes after meeting.
In other productions, the black box-style Community Theatre sometimes dictates, if not limits, what actors can do on stage. But "On Golden Pond" is one play that benefits from the setup, in which actors are surrounded on three sides by the audience.
The play is set entirely inside the living room of the Thayers' cabin on Golden Pond, and because the action relies so much on dialogue, the staging allows audience members to feel they're sitting there with the clan, listening to their conversations. Having the family on a raised stage would make those intimate moments feel more contrived.
In the end, "On Golden Pond" seems to work best as a comedy tied together by a poignant story, and not the other way around. After all, most of the truly dramatic moments are glossed over, including the life-changing relationship between Norman and Billy, which ultimately leads to Norman's renewed relationship with his daughter.
But that's probably a matter of perspective. It might just be a matter of how many times you laugh, compared with the number of times you wipe tears from your eyes.
"On Golden Pond" will probably make you do some of both.