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DEEPER FAMILY PORTRAIT: ‘Over the River and Through the Woods’ is beautifully detailed, authentic and pertinent

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Laurene Perry directs Joe DiPietro’s “Over the River and Through the Woods” for Big Dawg Productions at the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. Perhaps best known for writing the book and lyrics for both “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and “Memphis,” OTRATTW utilizes many elements of DiPietro’s background and early life, to paint a portrait of family life in America that is not only incredibly relevant today  but surprisingly touching.

Over the RiverNick Cristano (Kenneth Rosander) is a young marketing executive on the rise. He still eats Sunday dinner every week with both sets of grandparents in Hoboken, New Jersey, at the home of his maternal grandparents, Frank (Skip Maloney) and Aida (Irene Slater). His paternal grandparents, Nunzio (Craig Myers) and Emma (Chris Brown), live down the street. But to him, they live in a different world entirely. Frank emigrated from Italy at 14. They all grew up in the close-knit world of Italian immigrants in America: men worked while women had children, cooked and made a home. Nick, two generations removed and college educated, lives with entirely different expectations. He is not yet married, a source of deep and ongoing (and very vocal) anguish for his grandparents. He also has been offered a promotion—but it is on the other side of the country. He wants to take it but is terrified of the guilt his grandparents will exert upon him at his perceived abandonment of family. And he has good reason to worry. When Brown looks at the other grandparents and comments they have to give him a reason to stay, the determination in her delivery reminded me of the Cronenberg line, “Be afraid, be very afraid.”

Enter: Caitlin O’Hare (Beth Corvino), who Emma introduces as the unmarried niece of her favorite Canasta partner. Really. It is one hell of a blind date, with four chaperones along for the ride. Corvino’s Caitlin goes along with the antics of the family with remarkable grace. When she describes her favorite late-night snack, all four of her aged hosts hang onto her every word.

Act One is a side-splittingly funny recreation of trials and tribulations of multigenerational family life. Myers and Brown as loud-talking, wise-cracking Emma and Nunzio are infectiously funny. But the sweetness of Slater’s Aida is what melts the everyone’s heart. Aida is physically incapable of not feeding someone. Her soul (and sole) method of communication is through the kitchen. To wit: When Nick declines to take a lasagna with him, she responds she will just mail it to him. Yes, mail him a full lasagna. Apparently, Emma just mailed Nick’s sister 15 pounds of fettuccine Alfredo. Both Slater and Brown deliver the information in a straightforward sense and leaves Rosander and the audience reeling with surprise. My companion for the evening is from an extended Italian family. He noted, between script and delivery, it was like spending an evening with them. For all the humor, the subtext is achingly real: the struggles of people who come here for a better life for their children and who work hard and sacrifice to make that happen. As Nunzio puts it, he spent his life screwing the same bolt into the same nut at a factory to provide for his family. He delivers the line with a trademark sly, boyish grin and lets us know there’s a deeper dimension than he can put into words.

For all the hysteria of Act One, Act Two is a real tearjerker. Nick is trapped at his grandparents’ house and the sustained interaction starts to pull the veil back from his eyes. Trying to play Trivial Pursuit with them is enlightening: They have a whole short-hand communication he doesn’t understand. Part of it is generational, but a deeper and more surprising part is between the spouses. Rosander’s wonder, as he begins to see his grandparents as people separate from himself for the first time, is surprising to watch. Maloney reveals the heart of Frank, who wants to see his grandson stand on his own feet and be a man, but still yearns to keep him close. It is an interesting push/pull and comes with a touching monologue about his own childhood (parts of which sound an awful lot like Moss Hart’s). Maloney’s journey to the heart-rending final line of the monologue is powerfully believable. But watching Rosander’s face as he internalizes the import of what is being said magnifies it.

Perhaps the moment that might just break everyone’s hearts is between Myers, Brown and Rosander. Myers’ Nunzio has an opportunity to play the ultimate guilt card to keep Nick from leaving. Emma wants him to, and he struggles with knowledge and a decision that impacts all of their lives. Myers’ tear-filled eyes, as they gaze at his grandson for what might be the last time, and Rosander’s bewilderment in the face of Emma’s desperate rage … well, let’s just say, theatre-goers would have to be made of stone not to shed a tear or two. 

Scott Davis’ set is beautifully detailed. The window at the entryway, especially, gives an added dimension. There is a lot of detail on set, including family photographs and a dining table—which is the centerpiece of their life. It even has a clear, plastic protective liner on top of the cloth.

The performances are all wonderful. Each performer is genuinely in the moment, and, together, they do what they believe family should do: Create something bigger than the sum of its parts. The script has a certain amount of sentimentality to it, but Perry and the cast manage to keep the evening from drifting into schmaltz. Instead, they find something deeper and real.

Right now, we as a country are engaged in a truly heated discussion about immigration. “Over the River and Through the Woods,” without meaning to, is actually pertinent to that discussion. It puts forth front and center the struggles of those who come here seeking a better life. It also reminds how quickly their children and grandchildren forget those sacrifices,  instead taking them as entitlements.

Over the River and
Through the Woods
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.
May 4 – 14, Thurs.– Sat. 8 p.m., Sunday matinee at 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$22

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