Retired New England professor and lovable curmudgeon, Norman Thayer, Jr., and his spirited wife, Ethel, decide to spend one final summer at their family's lakeside cottage in Maine.
They are soon interrupted by the arrival of their daughter Chelsea, who, en route to a European vacation, leaves behind her fiancé's young son. Colliding generations soon forge common ground.
On Golden Pond is a heartwarming and hilarious celebration of the everyday struggles and ultimate triumphs of life, love and family.
Norman Thayer Jr.
Norman is an eighty-year-old retired college professor who is spending the summer with his wife at their lake house in Maine. He has many of the ailments common to people his age, including arthritis and palpitations, but his most pressing health issue is his slow mental decline. He is described as a white-haired man with glasses who dresses comfortably. Although Norman's pace has slowed, Thompson tells the reader that he retains his humor and boyishness. At the same time, he is distinguished and respectable. Despite his curmudgeonly attitude, his wife, Ethel, adores him and likes spending time with him. Norman enjoys solitary activities, such as reading and fishing. He is not a sociable person, and he has little interest in the lives of his neighbors. He has a sarcastic sense of humor, and he can be impatient, insensitive, and intolerant. Norman's tough exterior intimidates most people, so when someone stands up to him (like Bill) or answers sarcasm with sarcasm (like Billy), Norman shows respect.
Norman has a strained relationship with his adult daughter, Chelsea. According to Chelsea, the strain has come because she tried so hard to please him when she was a child and never felt that she met his expectations. Norman does not seem to understand this, and so he never apologizes or explains his parenting. As Norman spends the summer grappling with issues of aging and mortality, he makes a surprising friend in Billy, Chelsea's boyfriend's teenage son. Softened by this unlikely friendship, Norman is more open to the idea of trying to mend his relationship with his daughter.
Ethel is Norman's sixty-nine-year-old wife. She is energetic, loving, and sociable. She is good at handling Norman's crankiness and fatalistic outlook, and she challenges his negative behaviors and attitudes. She is also decisive and calm under pressure. When she thinks Norman is having a heart attack, she panics but finds and administers medicine to him. Ethel is also very compassionate with Norman's health problems and memory loss. Her nurturing attitude extends to the rest of her family and friends, and she likes to make their lake house feel like a home. Among her favorite things about the lake are the loons. She looks for them, listens to them, and watches what they do all summer.
Unlike Norman, Ethel is very interested in maintaining relationships with her neighbors and extends her warmth and welcoming to them. When Charlie first visits, she is delighted to see him and wants him to stay and have coffee, so they can talk about the other people on the lake and recall old memories. Ethel is nonjudgmental, good-natured, and encouraging.
Charlie is a local man who has known the Thayers most of his life. He is described as big and round with a weathered face from spending so much time on the lake, and he has been the mailman for many years. Only two years older than Chelsea, he has been harboring feelings for her since their youth. Charlie is helpful, sincere, and sociable, but he has never married. Charlie laughs a little too often and does not understand the subtlety of Norman's sarcasm, although he is drawn to Ethel's hospitality.
Chelsea Thayer Wayne
Chelsea is the only child of Ethel and Norman. She is forty-two and divorced, and she has a strained relationship with her father. Chelsea is described as pretty, tan, and athletic-looking, but slightly heavy. She calls Ethel "Mommy," but calls Norman "Norman." At the request of her mother, she has come to the lake house to celebrate her father's birthday, but she has also brought her fiancé (whom she marries by the end of the play) and his teenage son. She wants her parents to watch the son for a month, but because she knows her parents so well, she brings up the subject to Ethel. In this way, the reader sees that despite her age, Chelsea still feels a bit like a little girl around her parents. She talks to her mother openly about her own resentment toward her father, and although she complains that Norman never really talks to her, she is reluctant to talk to him about matters of substance, too. Chelsea takes a great stride toward maturity when she tells her father outright that the two of them have been mad for long enough and that she wants a healthy father-daughter relationship with him.
Chelsea's fiancé, Bill Ray, is a dentist from California. He is father to thirteen-year-old Billy. Bill is an honest person who confronts issues in a straightforward way. When Norman tries to intimidate him, Bill stands up to him. This shows a great deal of maturity and self-confidence, and it wins Norman's approval and respect.
Billy Ray Jr.
Billy Ray is the thirteen-year-old son of Bill Ray. Billy is short, smart, and struck by the awkwardness that comes with his age. Like Norman, Billy masks his self-doubt by appearing confident and comfortable with himself. Billy is unusual in that he is not intimidated by Norman, as many people are. He is adaptable, open-minded, and expressive. As his friendship with Norman deepens, he becomes wiser and more sensitive. The friendship helps him mature, and it teaches him how to be a caregiver and a true friend.