Norman and Ethel Thayer have recently returned to spend their forty-eighth summer at their vacation home on Golden Pond in Maine. Norman is doing his best to see that the phone is in working order, while Ethel, who has been gathering firewood, is excited at having met some of the neighbors. Norman, whose memory isn’t what it once was, is about to turn eighty and seems preoccupied, albeit humorously, with the prospect of dying.
Scene two finds Norman perusing the want ads, looking for a new “career opportunity.” Ethel suggests that he get out of the house and pick some of the wild strawberries that grow on the old town road.
Charlie, the mailman and long time family friend, arrives by boat and is invited in for coffee. Norman returns, looking a bit pale, having picked no berries. The mail includes Norman’s heart medication and a letter from daughter Chelsea, announcing that she and her boyfriend intend to stop for a visit on their way to Europe. Norman is acting less than delighted at the prospect of having so many people around to celebrate his eightieth birthday, which he is convinced will be his last. Norman confesses the reason for his hasty return from berry picking. He became disoriented in the woods and panicked.
Chelsea and her boyfriend Bill arrive, having brought Bill’s thirteen-year-old son, Billy, along. It is apparent that Bill is not the outdoors type, and Norman delights in “jerking him around” a bit as they discuss whether Bill and Chelsea should share a bedroom that night. Norman agrees, a bit reluctantly, that young Billy can stay a month while Bill and Chelsea are in Europe.
Act Two reveals that Norman and Billy have formed a close, perhaps even loving relationship and are trying to sneak away for yet another day of fishing. The month has passed and Chelsea returns, announcing that Bill, whom she married in Brussels, has gone on to California. Chelsea, unable to let go of her unhappy past, tells her mother she never really ever had her father’s approval. She envies the relationship that Billy apparently has with Norman. Finally alone with Norman, Chelsea tries to explain her feelings to him and they agree to see each other more often and to try a bit harder to understand each other. Charlie comes by for some reminiscing, and Chelsea agrees to accompany him sometime on his mail-delivery-by-boat route.
In the end, the Thayers are reluctantly leaving Golden Pond at summer’s end. Chelsea calls and invites them to California to spend part of the winter. Norman is a bit reticent until he speaks to Billy and promises that he will be there. While packing to leave, Norman picks up a heavy box of china, clutches his chest in pain, and drops the box. Ethel manages to locate his medication, and near panic results as she is unable to connect with the telephone operator so that a doctor can be contacted. They express their love for each other as she holds him and they realize how precious their time together is. The pain eventually subsides, and the Thayers walk arm-in-arm to bid goodbye once more to Golden Pond.