PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Leonard Foglia

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Leonard Foglia Director Leonard Foglia is as surprised as anyone that he's staging Ernest Thompson's popular family drama, On Golden Pond on Broadway.

Leonard Foglia
Leonard Foglia

Known for Broadway's Master Class and Wait Until Dark, as well as operas and many new plays (such as the comedy Paper Doll ) around the country, Foglia said the unique casting of the high-profile Pond is what drew him to the project last year, when it played The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and the DuPont in Wilmington, DE.

Who would turn down a chance to work with acting legend and Tony Award-winner James Earl Jones?

The familiar play is about a retired couple, Norman and Ethel, spending what may be their last summer at their Maine lakehouse. Their grown daughter, Chelsea, and her boyfriend, Bill, drop off Bill's son while they go on vacation. The boy and Norman bond, arousing conflicted feelings in Chelsea when she returns. Tony Award-winner Leslie Uggams plays Ethel.

In a break from rehearsals toward the Broadway return of the play (it opens April 7 at the Cort Theatre), Foglia spoke to Playbill.com about reinventing the modern chestnut for an African-American cast, and the surprises he found in a warm domestic story that he only knew via the famous film version.

Playbill.com: You're known for directing new works. What interested you in a revival of On Golden Pond ?
Leonard Foglia: Initially, it was James Earl's involvement. I basically said yes to the project before I read it, just because he was doing it. I knew the project from the movie, but I had never read it. I mean, he's making his return to the stage after 16 years! I actually only had an impression of the movie because it had been so long since I'd seen it. The thing I was struck by was the humor: how funny these characters were, and how they use their humor to deflect all the family dysfunction going on underneath. That was a delightful surprise for me.

Playbill.com: Everyone recalls it as a Katharine Hepburn-Henry Fonda vehicle — the movie. It was about deterioration and age, people seem to recall, perhaps because Hepburn and Fonda were so old…
LF: A great sadness: That was my memory of it, a hugely sad thing. But it's a wonderful portrait of how difficult it is to be a family, coupled with getting old and all of those things that go along with it. It's also wildly universal: It's how difficult it is to be a child, how difficult it is to be a parent, how hard it is to reconcile growing old — and how so many of us end up not resolving these things before our parents move on.

Playbill.com: There's something interesting and accurate happening in the plot that has a young boy bonding with the grandfatherly character rather than with his own father. In life there is often a generational skip where you are attracted to someone who is not your own parent.
LF: Grandparents have already been through the experience with their children, made all the mistakes with their children, have a certain distance and are able to look at grandchildren more objectively. It's sort of like how your friends' parents always seemed like the perfect parents. That's because they weren't yours! [Norman] is able to look at this kid more objectively. He was probably extremely hard on his daughter [Chelsea] because of what expectations he had for her, and wanting her to be a certain kind of person. The sadness and the pain in the story is that he never allowed her to be who she was. Then this kid comes along who actually has more strength than Chelsea had as a child, and is able to say, "I disagree with him," and not take things personally, because they don't have as much invested.

Playbill.com: Did you ask playwright Ernest Thompson for script changes, or did he make changes?
LF: Yeah, an enormous amount, actually. He doesn't like to say this. We were able to benefit from all the years this play has been done and his knowledge of that. Also, the fact that it's been adapted to different mediums, and in adapting, certain things got collapsed or changed a little bit, or added here and there. He not only allowed but encouraged us to utilize that knowledge. The play is probably 20 minutes shorter than the original. Early on, before we all started, he said when he was young and writing this he suffered from what a lot of young writers think: That everything needs to be said, everything needs to be explained. We definitely trimmed the play down to the meat of play. And there were moments that have been added, that have been alluded to in other versions. It's kind of a distillation of the original play, plus moments from other adaptations that he's done. We started treating it, in a way, like a new play, primarily because Ernest encouraged that. That's so rare for a playwright, especially for a play that's had so much success.

Playbill.com: It's still set in Maine?
LF: Yeah.

Playbill.com: Are there added cultural references? These are African-American actors playing the roles. I don't want to ignore color.
LF: That's the one thing he didn't do. He didn't rewrite it for a black cast. But we are. That was the discussion [in rehearsal]: what it meant to be an African-American family in this community. What does that mean? One of the decisions I made early on was to cast Charlie the mailman white. That will be the visual touchstone to tell the audience this is a black family in this community; and it's not a black production of the play. We certainly discussed a lot about African-American families, them in this community, him being a professor and what that means. There are certain things that fall into place just beautifully and certainly went into a lot of our work. How much of it comes through, I don't know. Ultimately, it's just about a family. But we didn't shy away from it in our own discussions.

Playbill.com: Knowing what your credits are, I keep wondering why you're not running a major resident theatre. Does that interest you?
LF: There was a time, a while ago, where I thought that was the thing to do. You think if you run a theatre you can do whatever you want — that you get to be like Jack O'Brien [at the Old Globe Theatre]. Everyone comes to you and you get to try things out at your theatre and bring them to New York! [Laughs.] I like being free-lance. I can say with absolute clarity I really wouldn't, probably — unless it was New York.

Playbill.com: Isn't more than half the job of being a resident artistic director handshaking and schmoozing with the community?
LF: It's unbelievable! I think the people who are most successful at it are the ones that truly enjoy that end of things. I think Oskar Eustis is a fantastic choice for The Public Theater. Having worked with him up at Trinity [Rep], I know how he transformed that place. He's a man born to it, and there are very, very few of those personalities around.

Playbill.com: Will we ever see your production of Paper Doll, the comedy about Jacqueline Susann, or is it gone with the wind?
LF: I'm in talks about it now. I thought it was out of my life. Not that I want it out of my life, because it's such a fantastic piece. It was done in three out of town theatres, and it was announced prematurely [for New York]. It's very very difficult to do a new play on Broadway that doesn't already have some sort of imprimatur. There seems to be room for one a season, which is sad. There should be five Doubts this season. Why is there only room for one?

Playbill.com: There are many revivals on Broadway at the moment — including On Golden Pond.
LF: It's understandable. We live in a society where people need a huge hook. They need the familiar, more and more. A lot of people blame it on producers, and I don't blame it totally on producers. I think it's the whole way our culture is now. Look at the musicals. They're all based on something. Probably next year we'll be workshopping a new musical with Terrence McNally. We had a meeting the other day. We looked at each other and laughed and said, "An original musical!" It was almost like a joke, because it's not based on anything — Terrence created something. How wonderful.

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