On Golden Pond at the Florida Rep is a very different production than the 1981 film – in a good way

On Golden Pond at the Florida Rep is a very different production than the 1981 film – in a good way

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Courtesy Of The Florida Repertory Theatre

Most people know “On Golden Pond,” not from Ernest Thompson’s stage play, but rather from the 1981 film adaptation that starred Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn as Norman and Ethel Thayer, and Jane Fonda as their estranged daughter, Chelsea. So,
there might be a temptation to skip the production of the play that’s on stage at Florida Rep through March 5th.

That would be big mistake for three important reasons.

First and foremost, the film and the play are radically different experiences.

“The play is vastly different,” Director Greg Longenhagen is quick to point out. “In fact, there’s almost no dialogue that exists in one that exists in the other. Also, there’s so much depth to the characters that if you’ve seen a production of “On Golden Pond” before coming to see this production, you’re going to see a different play simply because of the artistry on stage – the depth of the characters, the skills of the actors performing in it.”

Martin LaPlatney plays Norman. As a veteran Broadway actor, he knows his way around a script. He finds the one for “On Golden Pond” to be something really special.

“This particular version was written for James Earl Jones touring … with Leslie Uggams … That’s what makes it a different experience for audiences coming to see it, even people who have seen it before. If they’ve seen the film for instance, they may have a very different idea of it than it is as a play.”

Secondly, Martin LaPlatney and his real life wife, Susan Greenhill, deliver charming and intimate performances that are even more immediate and impactful than Fonda and Hepburn gave in the film.

“We are so blessed, so fortunate to have Susan Greenhill and Martin LaPlatney joining us to play Ethel and Norman Thayer, the two leads in this piece, ‘On Golden Pond’,” Longenhagen remarks. “They are a married couple. They have worked everywhere and anywhere across the country, probably outside the country. These folks have so much experience, including Broadway experience, in bringing great comedic ability, great pathos to the stage and I just think that for Southwest Florida audiences to be treated to these two is really a coup for Florida Rep and Southwest Florida.”

Off stage, they’re just as loving, affectionate and charming as they are as Norman and Ethel.

“The reason I am doing this play is to do this play with Susan,” LaPlatney declares.. “Because this play resonates with us as human beings and it would be fine with me if this is the last play I ever do as long as it’s with her.”

“I echo that,” Greenhill agrees. “It’s a gift that we were offered to do this together.”

LaPlatney and Greenhill not only share the love and respect their characters have for each other, they share many of their characters’ traits and foibles, in a reverse sort of way.

“Well, to tell you the truth, I’m sort of the ‘Oh honey, could you do this?’ ‘Oh honey I need this.’ ‘How do I?’ or ‘What is it?’ And he’s the ‘Alright, I’ll show you how do this so you can join the universe with all the technical stuff. And here’s how you work it.’”

“She’s basically saying that she should be playing Norman and I should be playing Ethel, but this is how it is,” LaPlatney laughs. “So we have to go with the way it’s cast now.”

“So it’s acting,” Greenhill observes.

But it’s what transpires on stage, between them, that differentiates the play from the movie.

“Theater is alive,” LaPlatney explains. “The actors are aware that you’re there. You’re aware that the actors are there. And there is an interplay between the audience and the actors that is not possible in any other medium that isn’t live. If you go to a movie on a screen, it’s dead. True, you watch it with a crowd, but it will be the same every time that reel of film goes through. But if you go see a play, every performance of that play will be slightly different, and sometimes much more than slightly different than another time depending on how the audience reacts, how the actors react to that, what they play, how long they hold a moment, how long they do something. There’s an interplay that’s not experienced in anything else that you can do like that.”

The third reason to see this production is because it resonates. The themes of aging, impending mortality, forgetfulness and loss of memory affect everyone of a certain age. But you don’t have to be retirees like Norman and Ethel to understand issues like the dysfunction and estrangement that too often typifies modern-day family relationships.

“Being at the age we are we have gone through it with our parents or our friends, and it’s a present thing, along with the estrangement,” Greenhill notes. “I was reading the percentage of people who have that in their family, with sons or daughters or whatever, and there is quite a lot of it around. And also, being together down here 24/7, constantly, do not ask Martin how that is.” [Laughing]

On this topic, Greg Longenhagen gets the final word.

“I really wanted to do Golden Pond ‘cause I think that the themes in the show and the things that get covered in the show are just as relevant today as they were when the play was written. You know, it really is a piece about family and the family unit and the bit of dysfunction that happens within the family and the disunity, and the unity, that can happen in families and I think that people everywhere can relate to pieces about that.”


  • The film won three Academy Awards – Best Actor for Henry Fonda, Best Actress for Katherine Hepburn (who did all her own stunts in the film) and Best Film Adaptation.
  • James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams both received Tony Awards for their appearances as Norman and Ethel Thayer.
  • Martin LaPlatney’s Florida Rep credits include Morning After Grace and One Slight Hitch. His Broadway credits include Amadeus, The Crucifer of Blood, Hedda Gabbler, Major Barbara, The Road To Mecca. Off-Broadway, he performed in Tartuffe, The Passion of Dracula, The Waverly Gallery, Give Me Your Answer Do (Roundabout Theater), The Paris Letter, Pretty Hunger (The Public Theater). Regionally, he had leading roles, ranging from Jack Tanner in Man and Superman to Macbeth, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Hartford Stage Company, Indiana Repertory Theater, The Ahmanson Theatre, Olney Theater Center, GeVa Theater, Delaware Theatre Company, Baltimore Center Stage, The Empty Space, ACT, (Seattle), Pennsylvania Center Stage, Florida Studio Theater, and many others.
  • You may have also seen LaPlatney on television in Law and Order, Cosby Mysteries, Alien Nation, Royal Pains, The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire, Elementary, Blue Bloods, and a bunch of commercials.
  • Martin has been happily married to Susan Greenhill for many years.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall’s website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.