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The play isn’t nearly big enough for the stage—but the star makes up for it. In fact, James Earl Jones so firmly grounds the Kennedy Center’s On Golden Pond that it’s not until you try to imagine it without him that you realize just how slight and sentimental Ernest Thompson’s little play is.

And it’s very slight. The action plays out over the course of a season spent alongside the titular lake (it’s in Maine, though Thompson has a character tell us portentously that “Golden Pond is very near wherever you are”), a rural idyll where bugs, bears, and a dim-bulb mailman are just part of the local color. If the setting is summer, the mood is distinctly autumnal: Cranky, forgetful, and conspicuously moribund, retired English professor Norman Thayer (Jones) suspects that this will be his last year at the lake, and though his nature is to make a joke out of it—“I’m in the market for a last hurrah,” he cracks—it’s easy enough to see the fear behind the pose. Certainly Norman’s sturdy, no-nonsense wife, Ethel (Leslie Uggams), knows what’s going on, and she knows just how much humoring her beloved codger will require—and just when he’ll be ready for a good, stern talking-to.

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Thompson’s is a gentle, unprepossessing family portrait, honest enough about its characters’ humanity and sage enough about what’s universal in it—there’s a reason, even beyond the Fonda-Hepburn-Fonda chemistry, that the 1981 film struck such a chord with audiences and Oscar voters. The comedy is deft and ironic, with pungent one-liners coming regularly enough to keep morbidity firmly at bay, and the author demonstrates a certain perspicacity about how we wear our buttons and why we like to push ’em. He isn’t precisely subtle, though—an “aside” about a pair of Ethel’s beloved loons imparting basic life skills to their offspring might as well be underscored in red ink—and Tennessee Williams he’s decidedly not: Where other modern domestic dramas might opt for ember-stirring and conflagration, On Golden Pond is perfectly content to let its small conflicts flare briefly and subside. There’s a subplot involving Norman’s daughter, Chelsea (Linda Powell), who gets jealous watching Dad bond with her boyfriend’s son the way he never did with her, but it generates little heat, and it resolves itself too touchingly-tidily.

Leonard Foglia’s production takes the show seriously, though, and its substantial dimensions make up for some of the script’s slenderness, even if the Eisenhower Theater’s environs are a little too cavernous for the small-scale dramas of the play. Ray Klausen’s sturdy cottage set frames a pretty, painterly rendering of that lake, and Brian Nason’s exquisite dawn-to-dusk lighting plays across the backdrop of sky and pond convincingly enough to inspire outdoor yearnings while this Indian summer of ours lingers. Composer/sound designer Dan Moses Schreier scores the evening with spare string meditations that suggest Copland, Barber, and Dvorak by turns, and sound homey and mournful at once.

And of course there’s Jones. The supporting players prove good enough, to be sure: Craig Bockhorn, as Charlie the mailman, lightens up a slow-moving opening sequence with a genuinely infectious laugh; Powell is engaging, if a little too young-seeming to be the disappointed, damaged 42-year-old the script suggests; Peter Francis James gives as good as he gets when Norman corners Chelsea’s latest suitor in the living room; Alexander Mitchell nicely balances charm and spark as the kid who helps get Norman’s life back in gear. And Uggams is certainly no lightweight—a Tony-winning star in her own right, she makes Ethel a winningly tart foil for her husband’s irascibilities and a sturdy, sensible rock for him to lean on when that becomes necessary. (And we know it will, from the beginning, if only because Thompson keeps telegraphing it.)

Jones, though—he’s played difficult fathers before (in August Wilson, too, not just in Star Wars), but Norman Thayer fits him like a curmudgeon’s ratty old favorite sweater. The forbidding bark, the shambling bulk, the scowling mien, and that certain cuddly something discernible underneath it all together make him a natural for the part, and he positively strolls his way through it. So relaxed is his performance, in fact, that he sometimes seems not to be acting at all; then, wisely enough, someone asks what you’d think of the evening if Jones weren’t up there being effortlessly elemental on the Eisenhower stage, and you realize that but for his gravity and magnetism, the unbearably light beings and business of On Golden Pond would long since have drifted off into twee territory. And that’s reason enough to celebrate Jones’ return to a Washington theater—watch him work in this trifle and you’ll know why 30-odd years after The Great White Hope, Arena Stage still uses him as a reference.CP