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David and Beth Jepson share the Granite Theatre stage one more time before retiring, after 20 years at the helm

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The husband-and-wife team of David and Beth Jepson have been beloved leaders at the Granite Theatre in Westerly for two decades, he as artistic director, she as assistant artistic director.

This season will be their final one before they retire.

They are relocating to Venice, Florida, in January. Before that, though, the Jepsons are sharing the Granite Theatre stage one last time with the current production of “On Golden Pond.”

It’s a fitting show for them to co-star in; they originally met when they were both performing in a production of the same play in 1990 at the City Nights Dinner Theatre in Pawtucket, R.I., where David Jepson was founder and artistic director.

Beth Jepson recalls of that initial time working together, “I didn’t know what to say to him. I would go home at night thinking, ‘I don’t know how to talk to him, I don’t know what to say.’”

“That’s no longer a problem,” David Jepson laughingly interjects.

She played his daughter in that 1990 production and in a 2010 version at the Granite Theatre, and this time around portrays his wife.

“I’m not his daughter any longer. I tell people I either got older or I got better,” Beth Jepson says.

The Granite Theatre’s board members were the ones who suggested the Jepsons star in “On Golden Pond” as their swan song at the venue. But David Jepson wasn’t sure at first, before coming around to the board’s suggestion.

“I was not convinced it’s a summer show. … ‘On Golden Pond’ is often perceived as a drama or tragic in some manner, but it’s got some of the best one-liners I’ve ever had. So hopefully, we’re trying to push that, so people will keep in mind that they are going to be thoroughly entertained,” he says.

“On Golden Pond” is best known for the 1981 movie version of the Ernest Thompson play starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. At its center are Ethel and Norman Thayer, who are coming back to the summer cottage where they have spent time over the past 47 years. Their daughter arrives, wanting to mend her troubled relationship with her father.

Of sets and friendships

Asked why they are retiring now, the Jepsons — she turned 73 earlier this week, and he turns 74 during the show’s run — point to ailments: they both have stenosis, and he has had back and neck surgery, while she has had major back surgery.

“There are a lot of physical demands on the job,” he says. “It’s taken its toll — bad back and two rotator cuffs shot entirely. Set building can be very taxing. We work with a volunteer crew, and thankfully, some people have daytime hours to build with me, but you have to work with their schedules.”

He's proud of many of the sets built over the years, pulling out photos of two of his favorites. One was for “Proof,” for which he built the exterior of a house, complete with a porch. The other was for “Yankee Tavern,” where the set was an extremely detailed bar, down to an old-fashioned cash register and 1950s jukebox.

The Jepsons started working at the Granite Theatre in the fall of 2000. Since then, they have produced eight shows each season. During those first couple of years, they were also still operating the City Nights Dinner Theater in Pawtucket. Handling two theaters proved onerous, though. He sold City Nights, and they moved to the Westerly area and concentrated solely on the Granite Theatre.

There is, of course, a bit of wistfulness about moving away.

“We’re leaving a lot of friends,” David says. “And a lot of our customers have become friends.”

Beth adds, “The men who are working on the set are season ticket holders — they’ve become our friends. They have been our friends in the audience, and now they’ve started working with us.”

She says, too, that “when you walk into this place or City Nights, you’re feeling like you’re walking into a family. There’s something about this man (she gazes at her husband), I haven’t figured out what it is. … He creates a welcome atmosphere. ... He always treats people well.”

Beyond that, David knows what he’s talking about when it comes to directing, something actors learn as they work with him. Beth recalls an actress was doubting what David was telling her, and another actress told her, “I used to feel the same way you do. But I finally started taking David’s advice, and if he told me to jump off a bridge to make a line funnier, I would do it.”

Moving to the Sunshine State

The Jepsons both are from Rhode Island originally. She grew up in Providence, and he in Warwick. They have each loved theater since they were kids. He recalls being bitten by the bug when he was young, maybe 10 or 11. She remembers going to school at 6:30 a.m. to work on sets for a production.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that they have already checked out a theater in their new Florida hometown. They happen to have friends in that town, which is part of the draw, but Venice is also the site of one of the largest community theaters in America, named the Venice Theatre. It boasts 1,500 volunteers.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful theater there,” David says. “We met with the executive director there for what we thought was going to be 10 minutes, and the conversation kept us trading theater stories for an hour and a half.”

Meanwhile, Renaissance City Theater, the producing entity of the Granite Theatre, is in the process of searching for a new artistic director who would start work Jan. 1. The new person would “be responsible for conceiving, developing and implementing the artistic vision and focus of the theatre,” and the compensation is a $30,000 annual stipend, plus incentives, according to the theater’s website. (The Jepsons' positions were full-time jobs.)

Fans should note that while “On Golden Pond” will be the Jepsons’ last time co-starring in a Granite production, David Jepson will be back onstage for a final appearance as Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” Nov. 29-Dec. 22.

Looking back over their time with the Granite Theatre, the Jepsons point to a number of milestones.

Some have to do with the business side of things: The theater's mortgage was paid off just two years after the late Paul Lynch invited the Jepsons to become Granite's artistic directors; and a new nonprofit organization, Renaissance City Theatre, Inc., was formed and has been able to continue the traditions and theatrical choices that had been started with Lynch, who was the Granite Theatre's president before passing away in 2011.

And some are on a more personal level and echo earlier comments: the Jepsons have helped create what actors and patrons have often described as a family atmosphere; they have formed friendships with actors, staff members and patrons; and they have helped to create a place where people are entertained and welcome.

As for “On Golden Pond,” Beth Jepson gets the last line of the play, which she acknowledges is kind of melancholy and appropriate:

“Hello, Golden Pond. We’ve come to say goodbye.”

If you go

What: “On Golden Pond” 

Where: Granite Theatre, 1 Granite St., Westerly

When: Through Aug. 25; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $20, $17 for ages 62 and older, $12 for kids 12 and younger

Call: (401) 596-2341

 

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