OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODSby Joe DiPietro
Director: Paula Coco
Set Designer: Paula Coco
Lighting Designer: Chris Berthelot
Costume Designer: Deborah Jaskolka, Debra Foster
Stage Manager: Suzanne Stanley
Nick Cristano: Blake Owen
Frank Gianelli: Stan Kelly
Aida Gianelli: Janye Anderson
Nunzio Cristano: Matt Gunther
Emma Cristano: Nancy Lamb
Caitlan O'Hare: Cayti Lang
Reviewed Performance: 4/21/2013
Reviewed by Ashlea Palladino, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I remember spending a couple of weeks each summer with my maternal grandparents, playing badminton in their back yard, swimming at the Elk’s club, and making marzipan cookies shaped and colored like tiny pea pods. That’s what Over the River and Through the Woods felt like to me: a giant marzipan-flavored week at my grandparents’ house.
The story focuses on Nick, a New Jersey-born twenty-something who spends each Sunday afternoon sharing lunch with his maternal and paternal grandparents, who handily live two houses apart. Nick’s parents and sister moved away, so he remains the only physically close familial link for his grandparents. Sundays are a tradition and a welcome return to “Tenga Familia.” Nick’s career plans, however, threaten to throw a wrench in the weekend institution, so his clever grandparents hatch a plan to keep Nick local. Of course they do.
There’s nothing overtly genius about DiPietro’s dialogue but its charm is firmly entrenched in its familiarity and ability to relate: anyone with a grandparent will recognize some version of home within this play. Do you remember the four grandparents from the movie Sixteen Candles? Each grandparental unit was specific and unique, as are Nick’s grandparents in this play.
With over a hundred years of marriage between them, Frank and Aida and Nunzio and Emma show us every septuagenarian stereotype in the book. Frank’s ability to operate a motor vehicle safely is waning, while Aida wears knee high stockings bunched at her ankles and force-feeds anyone who comes within a fork’s distance of her front door. Nunzio is a picture-taking curmudgeon, though he dotes on his darling Emma who spends most of her time passing out Mass cards. Their commonality lies in their love for Nick, who is at times undeserving of their devotion.
There were no set changes during this two-act play, which serviced the story effectively. The Gianelli’s living room was perfectly appointed with a plush sofa and accompanying chairs, and an armoire replete with a portrait of Pope John Paul II hanging protectively above it. The adjoining dining room boasted a table with six chairs adorned with a lace tablecloth and the requisite bowl of fruit. The wallpaper, paint, artwork and furniture flowed well together in muted shades of peach and pearl. And everything looked just enough out of date to be believable for this family and time period (the play is set in 1992). The only item that seemed slightly out of place was the burgundy Oriental rug that lay underneath the sofa and coffee table.
The lighting scheme played an important role in this production as the actors’ monologues and asides were presented in spotlight while the other actors kept about their business in other areas of the set. The direct connection with the audience helped to push the story along and to individualize the characters. During the first aside, however, all of the non-speaking actors (save one) froze in place. I assumed all of the asides henceforth would also utilize the freeze-frame method, but all subsequent scenes showed the actors staying busy behind the spotlight. While this detail didn’t detract from the progress of the story, I did wonder about the choice. Speaking of choices, I was disappointed that most of the audience only saw the backs of Nunzio’s and Emma’s heads during the dinner table scenes. Subsequent research showed photos of various dinner table set ups that allowed for all of the characters to be seen from the front, though the
limitation in this case may have been the availability of appropriate furniture.
Costumers Deborah Jaskolka and Debra Foster nailed the elders’ wardrobes with simple but completely recognizable ensembles. The hairstyles and wigs were conservative but firmly individual to the characters. There wasn’t anything flashy or ostentatious about the costume design, but it served its purpose well in that regard.
Accents and the inclusion of regional dialects can be challenging, though for the most part the grandparents pulled it off in this production. Nick’s accent, as well as that of Caitlan (a relative of one of Emma’s canasta buddies), were the least learned among the group, though both actors were consistent in their efforts.
As Nick Cristano, the family’s beloved grandson, Blake Owen performed responsibly, if not a little dully. He didn’t drop lines or miss marks, but his emotions seemed habitually undersold. Mr. Owen’s timing wasn’t completely off, though, as he earned many laughs.
Similarly, Cayti Lang’s rendition of Caitlan was a little lackluster.
Granted, her character is the least developed amongst the cast, but I expected to be endeared to Caitlan more than I was. As it stood, the senior players outplayed the young-uns at every turn.
Janye Anderson shined as Aida Gianelli, Nick’s maternal grandmother and would-be Giada de Laurentiis. Ms. Anderson’s frequent trips to and from her hidden kitchen were filled with humor, her recurring refrain of “you look hungry” bouncing off the dining room walls. Aida attempts to heal every ill with food, and Ms. Anderson finely portrayed Aida’s need to comfort and care for others.
As Frank Gianelli, Aida’s husband, Stan Kelly was the stateliest of the foursome. While he laments losing his freedom to drive a car, Frank is composed and cheerful. Mr. Kelly conveyed these qualities with ease, as well as the deeper, more conflicted feelings about Frank’s own father and his Italian heritage.
As the Mass card-wielding maternal grandmother, Nancy Lamb offered a charming performance. Emma’s devotion to her husband Nunzio is clear in every word and gesture, and Ms. Lamb effectively brought this allegiance to life. The emotion she displayed when lamenting Nunzio’s secret was truly tear-jerking.
Matt Gunther embodied Nunzio Cristano, probably because he’s played the part before. Though Mr. Gunther was likely younger than his fellow senior citizens off stage, his hair color and eyeglasses made him believable as the resident grump. One of Nunzio’s final scenes, where he chooses not to tell Nick his secret, was delivered with a heartfelt bravado that lingered into the play’s final minutes.
FCT’s productions just keep getting better and better, as evidenced by the nearly-full house during Sunday’s matinee performance. My favorite scene in the show was the Trivial Pursuit scene. Watch it and tell me we haven’t all been there at one time or another, with our elders trying to jog their own memories with statements like, “He was that guy, you know, who was in that movie? He was married to that girl with the face, you know, that face with the nose?” A couple of production limitations shouldn’t prevent you from catching this gray-haired gem.
Frisco Community Theatre
The Frisco Discovery Center (Black Box Theater)
8004 N. Dallas Parkway, Frisco, TX 75034
Runs through May 5th
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm
Tickets are $18.00 for matinees & $20.00 for evening shows. Senior, student and military discount of $2 per ticket
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.friscocommunitytheatre.com or call the box office at 972-370-2266.