Many people remember Joyce DeWitt for her role as Janet Wood on the television show “Three’s Company” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the actress says her “natural state” is being on stage.
“I started on the stage when I was 13,” DeWitt, 69, said in a recent phone interview from her home near Santa Fe, N.M. “I consider the theater my home. It’s my natural state, like falling off a log.”
The actress will star as Ethel Thayer in the play “On Golden Pond,” which opens at the Riverside Dinner Theater Oct. 4. The role was made famous by Katharine Hepburn, who played Ethel in the 1981 film. The play was written by Ernest Thompson, who also penned the screenplay.
Rehearsals begin Monday. DeWitt spoke on the phone recently in the midst of packing to move to the Fredericksburg area for three months.
She was born in Wheeling, W.Va., but has never been to Fredericksburg before.
“It’s always an exciting adventure to go to a new place, blend in and live there,” she said. “I enjoy that process.”
Riverside Artistic Director Patrick A’Hearn said DeWitt was on his radar a few years ago for a previous role. He had negotiated for actor John Davidson, known for hosting “Hollywood Squares,” to play the role of Ethel’s husband Norman Thayer, but Davidson pulled out after being offered the role of Captain Hook in a touring production of “Finding Neverland.”
A’Hearn then decided to offer the role of Ethel to DeWitt.
“I think everybody knows Joyce for her TV role, but she has quite an extensive background in the theater,” he said. “I think she’s a consummate professional who will come to the plate with an in-depth interpretation of Ethel Thayer. She’s somebody who sounds like she does her homework and wraps herself up in her role.”
DRAMA AND COMEDY
The play focuses on the Thayers, an aging, long-married couple who are visited by their daughter, her fiancée and future stepson at their summer home on a lake. It examines the often-turbulent relationship Norman Thayer had with his daughter and the way growing older has changed the Thayers’ relationship.
“It’s a heavy play, but also at the same time can be funny,” A’Hearn said. “There’s something about Joyce that brings a groundedness to the role of Ethel and also some humor to it as well.”
DeWitt said this combination of drama and comedy are what attracted her to the play.
“It’s an amazing piece of material, just a beautifully written play,” she said. “It explores the underlying tensions in families, the common circumstances of family dynamics. But it’s surprisingly funny—you do not expect that. The humor is so well-written, it’s delightful.”
She said she has not met any of the other cast members, but has had long conversations with A’Hearn and the play’s director, Helen Hayes award-winning actress Sherri Edelen, who directed Riverside’s well-received production of “Steel Magnolias” in 2014.
“We have a lovely rapport and I’m feeling comfortable with them,” she said.
DeWitt said she is looking forward to learning more about her character during rehearsals.
“The rehearsal process is a discovery process,” she said. “Obviously, you need to do your homework, but the way you react and interact with other cast members, you discover more about who you’re playing.”
“And then the audience is the final cast member,” she continued. “Each performance is unique. So it’s terribly important to prepare well and know that you’re worthy of the audience sitting down to watch it. You have to be available to them.”
A POPULAR TRIO
DeWitt said ensemble work is her favorite type of acting. She is still most famous for being part of the trio, which included John Ritter and Suzanne Somers, living in Apartment 201 in “Three’s Company.” She said she doesn’t at all resent that legacy.
“Whenever people recognize me, there’s always an explosion of the heart,” she said. “The love people have for these characters, there’s such happiness. Even on a day when you’re not feeling well, it’s easy to make time for them. Their hearts are so open when they stumble on you that you have to meet them in that place. They deserve to be honored in that way.”
DeWitt said she considers it a privilege to have been able to make people laugh through her work on the show and said no one involved ever thought it would be as popular as it has been.
“We were just trying to make the best contemporary version of a 16th-century farce,” she said.
She believes people responded to the characters in the show because of their obvious love for each other. In a chaotic world, the half-hour on Tuesday nights when the show aired was a place for people to escape to, where they could laugh and know that everything would be resolved in 30 minutes.
“That’s absolutely a worthy purpose of art, to make people laugh,” she said. “It’s not the only purpose, but I do like that purpose in particular.”
A’Hearn said he expects DeWitt will be received by Riverside audiences with the same excitement they had for beloved television alums Sally Struthers and Karen Grassle.
“Joyce comes from a period of time when those iconic TV shows, they just resonated,” he said.
He said the combination of DeWitt, supporting cast members from regional and local theater and direction by Edelen will make Riverside’s newest production “an exceptional presentation.”
“It’s going to be just Broadway caliber with this cast and director,” he said. “It’s one that people are not going to want to miss.”