It's fairly impressive that almost as soon as they take the stage in their characters from On Golden Pond, Tom Bosley and Michael Learned make you forget that you usually think of them as the dad from Happy Days and the mom from The Waltons. They quickly become Norman and Ethel Thayer, the aging couple at the center of Ernest Thompson's play.
More impressive is that before too long, Bosley and Learned make you forget that these roles belong, in the popular mind, to Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, who played them in the memorable 1981 film version.
In the touring show at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Bosley offers a much more affable version of Norman, and Learned a much more youthful and energetic Ethel.
Their performances make for a lighter experience of Thompson's genteel character study. Norman's orneriness comes across as good-natured ribbing rather than inherent meanness, and all the relationships have a softer edge than we might expect.
But that doesn't diminish the effect of the quiet interpersonal dramas that unfurl in the second act, as Norman reconnects with his distant daughter, Chelsea, and rediscovers his youthfulness through his friendship with her teenage stepson, Billy.
We meet Norman and Ethel as they're coming to their cottage in Maine, where they have spent countless summers together. Norman, nearing 80 and somewhat scatterbrained, is almost obsessed with the imminence of death. He professes to like almost no one, but comes alive when he meets Billy, who comes to stay for a month.
Director Leonard Foglia seems to put the blame for the strained relationship between father and daughter squarely on the daughter. Chelsea (Kate Levy) seems to be alone in failing to see Norman's charm. Her unwillingness to forget long-past differences seems petty, her attempt at reconciliation cursory, and she comes across as the play's one unpleasant character.
The production has ample charm, and the play's age and familiarity haven't affected its ability to warm the heart. The only major flaw on opening night Tuesday was a sound design that made voices overly loud and distractingly echoed, at least in some parts of the theater. In a play that draws its effect from intimacy and nostalgic ambiance, this was a major distraction.
Still, a lovely script, strong performances by the entire cast (including Evan Pappas as Chelsea's husband and Shadoe Alan Brandt as Billy), together with a nicely appointed rustic set by Ray Klausen, make the flaws easy to overlook.
'On Golden Pond'
Runs through Sunday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Carol Morsani Hall, 1010 N W.C. MacInnes Place, Tampa. 7:30 tonight, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. $26.50-$62.50 plus service charge. (813) 229-7827; www.tbpac.org