WESTERLY — From the audible sighs and sobs, prolonged applause and standing ovation, it seemed most people in the opening night audience of the Granite Theater's "On Golden Pond" were aware that the show is much more than a sentimental summer comedy on a small town stage. It seemed everybody knew that this play marks the last time that Beth and David Jepson — the theater's artistic directors who play the lead roles — will perform together on the Granite Stage.
But maybe not. Maybe it was the combination of the solid acting and the sentimental story that had them so moved.
Certainly Ernest Thompson's story about Ethel Thayer (played by Beth Jepson) and Norman Thayer, Jr., (played by David Jepson,) a long-married elderly couple puttering around around their rustic lake-side cabin in Maine — during what could be their last summer together — is a tear jerker on its own. Add to it the fact that the Jepsons are retiring at the end of the season — after two decades at the helm — and you have a full blown sobfest.
From the moment we meet Norman (a crotchety, retired university professor) and Ethel (an upbeat, forgetful sort with a fear of bugs) and watch them shuffle about the stage, we are drawn in to their lives. David Jepson is superb in the role made famous by Henry Fonda, and adds hefty amounts of humor to the role of older man grappling with time yet full of pithy zingers. Beth, as Ethel, gives a sweet, beautiful performance. It is the perfect role for Jepson, and the perfect way for her fans to remember her by.
The Jepsons actually met in a 1990 production of the play at City Lights Theatre in Pawtucket, when Beth played the role of Chelsea, the Thayer's daughter, a role she reprised in Granite's 2010 version of the play.
Granite regular Michele Mania plays the role of Chelsea in this Granite production and is ideally cast as the daughter with longstanding daddy issues. Jude Pescatello as Chelsea's boyfriend, Bill Ray, the dentist, is terrific and makes for the perfect foil for Henry. Young Patrick Conaway, in his Granite debut is charming and hilarious as Billy Ray, the dentist's precocious son who ends up spending part of the summer with the Thayers. Conaway, who has performed on a number of regional stages and has been in a number of television commercials, plays the role of the smart alecky teenager with tenderness which adds to the overall good feeling success of the show.
Rounding out the cast is Michael Chiaradio, reprising his role as Charlie Martin ("Charlie, the Mailman,") who adores Chelsea and her folks. Chiaradio delivers his lines in his best talks in his best Maine accent and infuses warmth and familiarity into his character.
Kudos to the talented set designers/builders, especially for that dang broken screen.
For theater lovers, especially friends and fans of the Jepsons, who will soon be relocating to Florida, "On Golden Pond" is a must-see.
It's a show David Jepson writes in his "A Letter From the Artistic Director," that's particularly close to his heart.
"It was because of this show, 29 years ago, that I met, teamed up with and fell in love with a wonderful actress," he writes. "Beth played the role of my daughter, Chelsea, back then. Twenty years later she and I performed again, this time as 'Norman' and 'Ethel.' It's one of her finest roles. Now it's a bittersweet reprisal as it is our last show together on the Granite Stage."