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His own ‘Golden Pond’

Writer directing it for first time

Ernest Thompson (in sunglasses), who wrote “On Golden Pond’’ when he was 28, and has since worked on several different productions, is directing the play for the first time with a professional cast in the Little Church Theater in Holderness, N.H. Ernest Thompson (in sunglasses), who wrote “On Golden Pond’’ when he was 28, and has since worked on several different productions, is directing the play for the first time with a professional cast in the Little Church Theater in Holderness, N.H. (Ian Raymond)
By Ray Carbone
Globe Correspondent / August 23, 2011

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HOLDERNESS, N.H. - Every artist holds a special affection for the first piece of his work that wins recognition.

For Ernest Thompson, that recognition came when his play “On Golden Pond’’ was first produced on Broadway, in 1979. The work has become an American theatrical classic, translated into 28 languages and produced in more than 40 countries.

“It’s been 33 years since I wrote it, and it keeps coming back on a semi-regular basis,’’ he said. “There was the play, then of course the movie, then the TV play, then the musical version, then it was back on Broadway again . . .

“After a while, on balance it seemed ridiculous for me not to do my own production.’’

So this summer, Thompson is staging what he calls “the definitive production’’ of “On Golden Pond’’ at the tiny Little Church Theater (an actual former community church) not far from his current home base by Squam Lake.

For the first time, Thompson is directing his own play with professional actors in a theatrical setting.

Thompson said he has not been displeased with other presentations of it, but every playwright longs to “put your own spin on your own play.’’

It’s been 30 years since the movie “On Golden Pond’’ - set in Maine but filmed near Squam Lake, and featuring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda - won three Academy Awards, including one for Thompson’s screenplay. Since that time, the writer-actor has worked on many projects, including several different productions of his play. (“Another Summer,’’ a musical version directed by Thompson, was staged by the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth, N.H., in 1997.)

The script for the latest show, which Thompson admits to tinkering with over the years, is cleared of some of the more visual movie scenes. For instance, the boating accident involving the lead character, college professor Norman Thayer (played by Frank T. Wells) is gone. So is the incident when Thayer’s adult daughter Chelsea (Lori Gigliotti Murphy) attempts to win her father’s approval with a tricky dive into the lake water. (The Fondas played those roles in the film; Henry Fonda and Hepburn won best actor and best actress Oscars.)

Even the line spoken to her husband by Ethel Thayer (played by Vinette Cotter), and named one of the most memorable movie quips of all time, is gone: “Listen to me, mister. You’re my knight in shining armor.’’ It wasn’t in the original play; Thompson says he added it after Hepburn asked for some more dialogue to help her with the scene.

“[This production] is in the sprit of sharing the play as, I, a young writer, envisioned, unplugged,’’ Thompson said.

What’s at the core is a great and wonderful story, as observed at a performance earlier this summer. The production is a warm, funny show about a family’s efforts to overcome inherent relationship difficulties with their best understandings of intimate simple love.

One new aspect of this production is the inclusion of two original songs: “On Golden Pond’’ was co-written by Thompson with longtime music collaborator Joe Deleault; “The Father Daughter Dance’’ was written by him and legendary singer-songwriter Carly Simon. The songs appear in the play in recordings of Simon singing, accompanied by renowned Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster.

“The first is meant to just draw the audience in. It’s announcing, “This is the way you’re going to see this. It’s going to be fun but you’re going to be feeling all the emotions of these characters,’ ’’ Thompson explained. “The one that Carly and I wrote together, it’s just the perfect metaphor for all that’s gone wrong in those characters’ relationship. And for that longing to reconnect.

“It was accentuated in the movie, of course, since it was a real father and daughter in the roles, but there’s a slightly different, more pragmatic view here,’’ he said.

Thompson feels fortunate that at 28 he was able to capture the essence of relationships and characters in a way that still resonates. But he naturally has a unique fondness for his own version, and he intends to have it live on long after this summer’s Lakes Region production ends.

“This is only the beginning,’’ he said. “We’ve already been approached by several theaters throughout New England, and we can do the play anywhere. So it may end up in Boston eventually. I’ve already spoken to a theater in Manchester [N.H.] that wants to do it.”

Ray Carbone can be reached at raycarbone@metrocast.net.

ON GOLDEN POND Ernest Thompson, writer and director

Whitebridge Farm Productions

At: Little Church Theater, 40 Route 113, Holderness, N.H.

Through Sept. 4. Tickets: $25-$50. 603-968-2250, www.ongoldenpond.org