Writer finally helms his Oscar winner on NH stage

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NEW HAMPTON, N.H. (AP) - Ernest Thompson wrote the play “On Golden Pond” during Memorial Day weekend in 1978 and watched from the sidelines as his movie adaptation became a blockbuster three years later.

But when the curtain opens Tuesday at a tiny New Hampshire theater on the lake where the movie was filmed decades ago, the Academy Award-winning Thompson will be center stage.

He is directing the stage production of the drama for the first time.

“I started with it as a play, so that’s where my heart is,” Thompson told the Associated Press.

The 1981 movie that netted Oscars for Thompson and lead actors Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda was the second-highest grossing movie that year, behind “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and ahead of “Superman 2” and “Cannonball Run.”

It is the story of an aging couple _ Ethel and Norman Thayer _ spending the summer at their lakeside cottage. They are grappling with an estranged daughter, played in the movie by Jane Fonda, who feels the urge to join them for Norman’s birthday after a lengthy trip to Europe with her fiance. Meanwhile, the Thayers are taking care of her fiance’s rebellious, adolescent son _ bringing multi-generational issues to bear.

Tuesday’s opening marks the second session of the play Thompson directs at the Little Church Theater on Squam Lake in Holderness. It had a two-week run earlier in the summer, and Thompson had a chance to gauge audience reaction.

“They come in with a little skepticism,” Thompson said. “How are you going to improve on Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda and, incidentally, where’s the lake?”

“What’s really powerful is that the audience’s imagination fills in all the missing pieces,” Thompson said.

Thompson, 61, wrote the play when he was 28 and making a career change from acting to writing. He said he was writing about the end of an era when families would spend the entire summer at a lake cottage, as he did growing up. His mother would not abide a telephone, television, stereo or radio at their cottage on Great Pond in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine. But the cottage had a vast library of books, Thompson said, and the storyteller in him took root there.

He said he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the movie’s director, Mark Rydell, but loves the big-screen version.

“Weirdly, insanely, that movie continues to resonate with people,” Thompson said. “I’m in the luxurious position of having written a play _ now translated into 28 different languages _ that wasn’t killed by the movie.”

The lead characters in the Little Church Theater production are played by a married couple performing their fifth production of “On Golden Pond” together _ Frank Wells, 74 and Vinette Cotter, 65, of Moultonborough. They marvel that Thompson could portray Ethel and Norman Thayer at the young age he did.

“They’re very extraordinary characters,” Wells said. “He denies these people are his parents, but there’s got to be some defining thing there that made these people ring true to him at 28.”

Wells said Thompson has shaped his character into a more hard-edged Norman than Wells has played in the past.

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