NEW HAMPTON, N.H. — 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 multigenerational 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.
“He felt Norman wasn’t tough enough, wasn’t acerbic enough,” Wells said. “From what we’re hearing, he’s correct.”
Thompson said he wrote the play “so minimalist that each person in the audience gets to fill in and create his or her own Golden Pond.”
For this production he carried minimalism to the set as well. It consists mainly of four large panels painted by noted Meredith artist Stephen Hodecker. Wells and Cotter were skeptical.
“It seems so cold, but right from the start it really worked,” Wells said. “Friends who’ve seen us in a couple of productions of it say it’s the best one.”
Cotter said it’s a dream come true to finally be directed by Thompson.
“He brings an understanding of his work,” she said. “I think too, because he’s older, he’s gotten to know his characters a little better.”
Thompson moved from Los Angeles to New Hampshire with his young family 21 years ago, settling not far from where the movie version of “On Golden Pond” was filmed.
Thompson’s introduction of the play is aptly themed, “Back Where it All Began.”
“When people see this play they’re not just seeing a very good production of “On Golden Pond,” they’re seeing Ernest Thompson’s production of it,” he said. “People in New Hampshire have a real sense of private ownership of ‘On Golden Pond.’”
After the play, patrons can chat with Thompson and take photographs with his Oscar which, he says, “shamelessly hangs out at the kiosk.”