He moves with the slowest of gaits. Carrying the weight of his years, he seems the epitome of a man who has lost his bearings and the will to live. "You're old, and I'm ancient," he growls to his long-suffering wife. Yet don't be fooled.
Retired college professor Norman Thayer Jr., in the person of actor James Earl Jones, is the liveliest presence on stage. The play is a spirited revival of "On Golden Pond," Ernest Thompson's generous meditation on mortality, that opened Thursday at Broadway's Cort Theatre.
And the 74-year-old Jones, not seen on Broadway since his Tony Award-winning turn in August Wilson's "Fences," in 1987, is giving one of those theatrically combustible performances that spark the entire production. The dynamic Jones invests the role not only with humor, but with a great deal of heart as well.
Thompson's play, first seen off-Broadway in 1978 and later on Broadway, is perhaps best known from its 1981 movie version, which starred Henry Fonds, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. We're in a summer cottage on a lake in Maine, where Norman and his wife, Ethel (the warmly supportive Leslie Uggams), have been vacationing for 40 years.
Norman is a professional curmudgeon, a gruff man who delights in baiting those around him. His wife ignores it and goes about her business. His fortysomething daughter, Chelsea, left home years ago to avoid his criticisms.
Now, in what could be their final summer on Golden Pond, Norman and Ethel try to cope with their advancing years and the reappearance of their child, who arrives with a new beau and the man's young son.
Thompson's play has its formulaic moments, particularly in the bonding of Norman and the boy, played with offhand charm by Alexander Mitchell. This "Pond," directed with care by Leonard Foglia, is a deceptively sunny play, perhaps because it is set on that idyllic lake, captured here in all its picture-postcard beauty by designer Ray Klausen.
Yet there is an undercurrent of sadness that runs throughout the evening, a heart-tugging melancholy that the actors skillfully convey. Thompson not only is dealing with the prospect of growing old but also with the conflict etween generations, epitomized by the chilly relationship between Norman and his emotionally wounded aughter.
Linda Powell exudes the right amount of frosty belligerence as the offspring who has been hurt too often by her father and refuses to take it any more. Her scenes with Jones are lovely, telling as much for what is left unsaid as for what is actually spoken.
Peter Francis James scores nicely as the daughter's suitor, a dentist who is more than a little nervous about the New England outdoors. And comic relief is provided by Craig Bockhorn as a goodhearted local letter carrier still carrying a flame for Chelsea.
The play has been trimmed a bit, but none of the dialogue has been changed, according to the author. That perhaps speaks to the popularity of "On Golden Pond." The inevitability of old age as well as the eternal combat between parents and children are subjects that always will be universal.
A captivating performance by James Earl Jones is both the highlight and the problem with "On Golden Pond," a revival of Ernest Thompson's gentle tale about growing old.
In his return to Broadway after nearly 20 years, Jones is commanding and charismatic as a husband and father dealing with impending mortality, lading health and a long-missing relationship with his middle-aged daughter.
The problem is that he's just too darn likable - and hilarious - as Norman Thayer Jr., a retired English professor spending what is likely his last summer at the family's well-worn-cottage on an idyllic lake in Maine.
Flashing his trademark sly grin, and with the unmistakable voice that launched a thousand starships in full boom, Jones hardly comes off as the kind of crotchety old coot the story calls for.
The role can be a tour de force for an older actor - a frail Henry Fonda won an Oscar playing Norman in his final film, the 1981 screen version that co-starred Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda.
But Jones' imposing stage presence reveals the thinness of the plot. Take away Norman's glib and caustic one-liners, and it's a simplistic, mawkish play that glosses over the father-daughter conflict at its core.
"Pond" unfolds over the course of one summer at the cottage, where Norman and his devoted wife, Ethel (Leslie Uggams), have been coming for the past 46 years.
Things are different. Norman -seemingly more cantankerous than ever on the cusp of his 80th birthday – is displaying an obsession with death. He's also having frequent bouts of forgetfulness, which frightens the stoic Ethel.
Their vacation is disrupted by a surprise visit from their daughter Chelsea (Linda Powell), a bitter divorcee who comes to the cottage with a new fiance and his young son in tow.
Uggams is appealing as Ethel, and she has an easy chemistry with Jones that makes it seem like they've been married forever. But the supporting characters, including Chelsea's childhood friend (Craig Bockborn) and her dentist boyfriend (Peter Francis James), are mere foils for Norman's sarcastic wit.
The casting of African-American actors in five of the six roles is a nice idea, by the way, though it doesn't alter the story in any way.
Even if "Pond" isn't all that deep, it's still a pleasure watching an old pro like Jones, whose last Broadway role was his Tony-winning turn in 1987's "Fences," picking scenery out of his teeth.
A voice is a terrible thing to waste - particularly when it's the voice of Darth Vader, CNN, Verizon, almost the Voice of God.
It is, of course, the burnished golden voice of James Earl Jones, who last night made a long-awaited return to Broadway in that brave but soggy saga of terminal nostalgia, Ernest Thompson's "On Golden Pond."
Jones is Norman Thayer, a retired, prickly 80-year-old college professor with a heart condition, who returns with his 69-year-old wife (Leslie Uggams) for what might be a last visit to their longtime summer home at Golden Pond in Maine.
Considering Jones' Verizon connections, there's a certain irony in the fact that his first words are: "The phone works - at least I think it does."
Forget the phone. There can be no doubt about Jones' abilities - they still most emphatically work.
Thompson's play of an old couple coming to terms with life (in the shape of an estranged daughter) and death (in the shape of its imminent prospect) is obvious, sentimental and yet well-enough crafted to be touching rather than maudlin.
There's a grain of honesty at its tinsel heart, and ever since the play's first off-Broadway production with Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen in 1979 and its subsequent movie with Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn two years later, it has provided a happy hunting ground for actors long past their first youth.
Leonard Foglia's simple, unaffected staging, Ray Klausen's unfussily evocative settings, Jane Greenwood's no-nonsense costuming and Brian Nason's eloquent lighting provide a handsome background for the Thayers' 48th summer at their Maine retreat.
For the first time, the play is being given by an African-American cast - except for the mailman, a cheerfully laughing Craig Bockhorn (it's set, after all, in Maine) - but the transition is unnoticeable.
Although it is naturally dominated by Jones' beautifully portrayed, lovable (but never too lovable) curmudgeon, the rest of the cast elegantly establishes their relationship with him.
Uggams - soft-toned but sassy - is as perfect in her way as Jones, making the caring, understanding, slightly rueful wife a figure of graceful reality much more than the tintype cliche she could easily become.
The younger generation is also shrewdly within the work's attitude of crisp sentiment. Linda Powell is alertly nuanced as the daughter trying to come to terms with a father still meager in any expression of simple paternal feeling, and Peter Francis James is excellent as her smart dentist fiance.
Just as carefully finessed is the young Alexander Mitchell as the dentist's brashly cute 13-year-old son, who, to no one's surprise, wins the rascal octogenarian's tricky heart.
"On Golden Pond" is not by any means a great play, but it's a damn good vehicle. This cast, led by the testily exultant Jones, use it as if they were triumphantly water-skiing over admittedly shallow waters.
No one can just say no like James Earl Jones. No, of course, is universally recognized as a small word of immense potential power. But you will not fully appreciate how affirmative a simple no can be until you hear Mr. Jones speak it - which he does again and again - in Leonard Foglia's surprisingly fresh revival of Ernest Thompson's "On Golden Pond," which opened last night at the Cort Theater, also starring Leslie Uggams.
The question may be as innocuous as "You want a glass of milk, Norman?" or "You're a baseball fan, huh?" The answer is always the same intimidating "N-O-O-O-O!!!" Well, typography can hardly be expected to capture a drawn-out, deep-purple note that would fit right into the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth.
As intoned by Mr. Jones's character, Norman Thayer Jr., a retired professor of English on the cusp of his 80th year, it's a sound to make grown men tremble even as they laugh at being scared. And trust me, you will laugh pretty much every time Mr. Jones says no. But you'll also experience the sympathetic ache that comes from sensing another human's awareness of his own mortality. Of slippery memory and faltering step, Norman Thayer is in the twilight of his life. Mr. Jones makes sure that this man goes any way but gentle.
That Mr. Jones's raging Norman - which is charmingly balanced by the even-keeled performance of Ms. Uggams as his wife, Ethel - seems destined to be remembered as one of the finer performances of recent Broadway seasons could hardly have been anticipated. Granted, Mr. Jones is a large man of comparably imposing theatrical stature, who won Tony Awards for blistering performances in "The Great White Hope" and "Fences" and whose booming bass voice is internationally famous as that of Darth Vader, the ultimate bad father figure, in the "Star Wars" movies.
"On Golden Pond," on the other hand, is one of those sentimental comedies, cute and tender, that bear icky resemblances to Hallmark greeting cards pitched to "that special someone" in people's lives. Such plays ("Steel Magnolias," also now in revival on Broadway, is another) tend to accumulate devoted popular followings and highbrow snarls of disgust. So it was with "On Golden Pond," which transferred from a limited Off-Broadway run to a healthy life on Broadway in the late 1970's and was turned into a 1981 film, which won Oscars for Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn as the long-married couple created onstage by Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen.
Even Hepburn and Fonda, being quiveringly and importantly sincere, didn't make me a fan of "On Golden Pond," which revels in the nudging joys of grumpy old codgers saying mildly risqué things and the misty truisms of family therapy guides. Placing a powerhouse like Mr. Jones in the quaint Maine summer retreat where the Thayer family spends a season of healing seemed the equivalent of putting a German shepherd into a Chihuahua-size doghouse.
Yet rather than make his surroundings feel small and artificial, Mr. Jones's natural grandeur forces the play to find room for his sweeping emotional breadth. And it is telling that while I initially regarded Ray Klausen's set as a blown-up 50-cent scenic postcard, by the show's end it felt like a real home, with all the ambivalence that implies.
Not only does Norman start to seem a cousin of Falstaff, hearing chimes at midnight. Those big lungs of Mr. Jones infuse every aspect of this show with oxygen. The sitcom-ish aspects of "On Golden Pond" play as smoothly as ever, but they have been largely purged of their stickiness. Most important, as he fences with the shadow of death, joking robustly about his imminent demise, Mr. Jones's Norman makes you acknowledge how often comedy is rooted in fear.
The deep appeal of this "On Golden Pond" is not a one-man achievement, though it is hard to imagine the production working on the level it does without Mr. Jones. As the no-nonsense, nature-loving Ethel, Ms. Uggams is an affectingly reserved foil to Mr. Jones's blustery Norman. She emanates the willed, cheery composure of a woman who has spent a lifetime adjusting to a temperamental mate, even at the expense of her own child.
When that child, Chelsea (Linda Powell), now a 42-year-old woman, shows up at the Thayers' summer home, you understand her resentment not just toward the prickly, critical Norman but toward her mother as well. When Ethel stiffens as Chelsea embraces her, it is as chilling as Norman's jokey but hostile insults. Ms. Powell, too, is first rate, a combination of abject openness and wise-cracking guardedness that makes you feel Chelsea is indeed her father's daughter.
The rest of the cast, under Mr. Foglia's astutely relaxed direction, is close to faultless. Craig Bockhorn, as Charlie Martin, the local mailman with a crush on Chelsea, charmingly sidesteps the obvious temptations of down East caricature. Peter Francis James's Bill Ray, the latest man in Chelsea's life, holds his own under interrogation from Norman, turning what might have been a clichéd girlfriend's-father-from-hell sequence into a sly battle of wills. And as Bill's 13-year-old son, Billy, Alexander Mitchell is so spontaneously at ease that he redeems the unfortunate role of the troubled, smart-mouthed kid who brings springtime into an old man's winter.
But it is Mr. Jones's Norman who is the primal force by which all the other characters must define themselves. Norman has constructed an elaborate defense system, which exaggerates natural anger and exasperation to operatic proportions as a way of dealing with the death he knows is just around the corner.
What's so especially moving is how Mr. Jones insists you glimpse existential terror beneath the bluff bravado. Even as Norman is saying something savagely cutting or clever, a sudden slackening of the jaw, drawing back of the shoulders or glazing of the eyes betrays his inescapable sense of a waiting darkness.
There is a moment toward the end when Norman lies prone on the floor, unmoving and to all appearances unbreathing. Yet somehow Mr. Jones positively vibrates with all the levels of the character he has drawn before. That's something only a bona fide star of the stage can do. Such creatures are few these days. "On Golden Pond" provides a rare and welcome opportunity to catch one in peak form.
“Cuddly" is not the first adjective that comes to mind when you think of James Earl Jones. Whether lending his booming baritone to Shakespeare and August Wilson or to Darth Vader and Verizon, the actor has projected a formidable, sometimes forbidding authority.
But whenever Norman Thayer Jr., Jones' character in the new production of Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond (* * * out of four), opens his mouth, somehow our first instinct is to smile. True, Norman is a cranky old coot, but we can tell that he has a soft center. And Jones plays him with such warmth and obvious pleasure that he becomes surrogate grandfather to each audience member - and that's saying something, given the age range of Broadway theatergoers.
Though Pond premiered on stage in 1978, most are familiar with Norman and his wife, Ethel, through the performances delivered by Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in a screen adaptation three years later. That presents Jones and Leslie Uggams, his co-star in this revival, which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre, with two large pairs of shoes to fill.
That those shoes happen to be of a different color here is inconsequential. The questions explored in Thompson's sweet trifle of a play - mortality, love, family ties and obligations - transcend racial boundaries. Even when Jones' Moore waxes Archie Bunker-ish in his evaluation of various racial and ethnic groups - including "Negroes" - it's a reminder that stereotypes can be shared even by the groups they help divide.
Jones has a swell time with these more acerbic lines, tossing them out with the easy poise and expert timing of an ace pitcher. Uggams' agility, in contrast, can seem out of sync with her character at times: Even in a drab old-lady wig, the 61-year-old actress is far too beautiful and spry to suggest a woman pushing 70.
Uggams' enduring vitality - and Jones', for that matter - is helpful, though, in showing us the patience and affection that have kept this couple together for some five decades. There also are winning turns from the supporting actors, who include the lovely, earthy Linda Powell as the Thayers' long-suffering daughter, Chelsea, and the elegant Peter Francis James as her beau, Billy Ray.
Craig Bockhorn also charms as an affable mailman, though the real standout here is Alexander Mitchell, the 13-year-old who is cast as Billy Ray's son. Mitchell conveys his character's precocious qualities with none of the self-conscious affectation that defines so many child actors, and his rapport with Jones is priceless. Even when the two are practicing hokey intergenerational humor, the teenager engages the old pro with fearless sass.
Maybe the kid never saw Star Wars - or maybe he's just having as much fun as Jones and the others seem to.