Family dysfunction never felt so good

By D.A. Blackburn, guest critic

Family matters make for the best drama. Whether it's Thanksgiving dinner with crazy Uncle Al, or just the standard sibling bickering of youth, the dynamics of family life provide us a seemingly unending supply of emotionally-charged dramatic and comedic material. Moreover, it's universal. In some form or another, we are all subject to the triumphs and trials of the family.

Ernest Thompson must have given some thought to this in penning "On Golden Pond," his simple, but poignant tale of generational interaction. In exploring the family, he found a wealth of material capable of tugging at the old heartstrings. So much so, that the work has found critical acclaim on both the silver screen and the stage.

Fresh from a successful run on Broadway last season, "On Golden Pond" graces the stage of the Meadow Brook Theatre through March 11. In becoming the first Midwest theater to revive the work, the company has taken little risk, and created a production with broad appeal.

"On Golden Pond" is the story of the Thayer family--a tale of familial resentment and reconciliation, growing up and growing old. At its core, it is a story of love, filtered through the trials of everyday life.

For the most part, Meadow Brook's production - directed by John M. Manfredi - hits the mark, drawing both laughter and tears. It's beautifully staged with sets by Brian Dambacher and lighting by Reid G. Johnson. The pair has created a lovely summer home, perfectly matched to the Thayer family. And Mike Duncan's sound design is spot-on, transporting the audience to the shores of Golden Pond with an uncanny realism. Mary Leyendecker's costumes do little to set the work in its native 1970s, but serve the story adequately.

The cast of six is strong, but the production occasionally turns characters into caricatures.

David L. Regal, artistic director of Meadow Brook Theatre, does a fine job as the show's lead, the curmudgeon, Norman Thayer, Jr. Mary Wright Bremer, likewise, turns in a good performance as his wife, Ethel. The pair has performed together previously, and their chemistry as a long-married couple is excellent. Their elderly mannerisms, however, sometimes seem over-the-top.

Lynnae Lehfeldt is credible as their estranged daughter Chelsea, bringing the sorrow of an unhappy childhood to the surface powerfully. As her boyfriend-turned-husband, Bill Ray, Andrew Huff makes his brief appearance in the work memorable with intensity and nuance--nervously challenging Norman in defense of his beloved.

Logan Manfredi, the youngest son of the director, makes a strong professional debut, injecting a sharp, sarcastic whit into his portrayal of 13-year-old Billy Ray, a character pivotal to the show's ultimate message of reconciliation.

It's in the role of Charlie Martin, mailman and neighbor to the Thayers, that the senior Manfredi's shortcomings are most evident. Aaron T. Moore looks the part, but his too-heavy, unbelievable accent and constant booming laughter detract from an otherwise entertaining character. That said, the flaws in Meadow Brook's production are not severe enough to drag a good story down.

'On Golden Pond'

Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester. Wed.-Sun., through March 11. Tickets: $28-$38. For information: 248-377-3300 or HYPERLINK "http://www.mbtheatre.com"

The Bottom Line: "On Golden Pond" delivers a touching, universal story in a stylish package.

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