WEST VALLEY CITY — In Over the River and Through the Woods 29-year-old Nick Cristano (played by Alex King) has dinner at the home of his maternal grandparents, the Gianellis, every Sunday. Also present at this weekly gathering are Nick’s paternal grandparents who live just down the street. As the only member of the family who has stayed near his grandparents in New Jersey, Nick finds it particularly difficult to announce that he has been offered a promotion in Seattle. When Nick’s grandparents conclude that Seattle is in the far away Washington (not the close one), the four old friends work together to persuade Nick to turn down the job.
Thanks to the attention to detail of set designer Jennifer Taylor, this production started the moment I entered the theater. As I looked at each end table and bookshelf, filled perfectly to match the number of years the Gianellis had spent in the home Frank built for Aida, I couldn’t help but think that this set was more beautifully and completely decorated than my own home. The entire floor of the Hale Centre Theatre stage had been covered in a combination of wood laminate and carpet. The stage featured a raised dining room separated from the living room by a short wall. Both this accent wall and the walls surrounding the interior doors were painted green, a detail that gave the room its finished look. From the theatre’s rafters hung two large sections of paneled ceiling, each with an operational decorative light fixture hanging down. The front door and adjacent windows featured a solid construction that rose only to half the expected height with the remainder left to audience imagination. This allowed the actors to work with the function of an operational door without blocking the audience view.
In many ways, this production of Over the River and Through the Woods showed the same authenticity as the interior design. The peculiarities exhibited in the characters of playwright Joe DiPietro seemed to be selected to tug at the heartstrings of anyone lucky enough to have met their own grandparents. Although I cannot claim scientific accuracy, I’d be willing to bet that in just about any set of four grandparents, there would be one just like Aida Gianelli (played by Jayne Luke) who, upon Nick’s arrival, would accuse him of looking hungry and set to work making him something to eat. For Aida, any burden could be lessened with food. Equally convincing was Frank Gianelli’s (played by Jared Dunn) reluctance to give up driving, despite his decreasing ability to do so safely. The manner with which he worked the injustice into every conversation compared authentically to examples from my own observations.
Emma Cristano (played by Jane Merrell Huefner) relied more dominantly on her faith, turning to Mass cards and their priest in times of crisis. While each of the other grandparents seemed more than willing to dole out guilt on Nick, Nunzio Cristano (Gary Pimentel) provided a more introspective grandparent who, despite his diagnosis of prostate cancer, was unwilling to expect Nick to share his burdens. Instead, Nunzio encouraged Nick to make his own choices and pursue his own path.
Under the direction of Jennifer Parker Hohl, the dynamic between the four grandparents was nothing short of hilarious. Through the many dialogue sequences that demanded the characters to talk nearly simultaneously, Hohl helped keep an ideal balance between clarity and comedic timing. One scene that showcased this balance happened early in the second act when the grandparents decided to play Trivial Pursuit. From accepting each other’s incredibly vague answers, such as “the man with the ears” as correct despite Nick’s insistence to the contrary, to using their many years of shared experience to give incredibly laborious and equally obscure references, this game of Trivial Pursuit single-handedly captured the essence of family game nights across the country. Culminating in an impromptu walk down memory lane complete with the couples dancing in the living room, the grandparents managed to create the sense of family that would have Nick reconsider his move to Seattle.
In fact, the only real inconsistency throughout my evening as a fly on the Gianelli wall was the accents employed by the cast. While King stayed consistent in his use of a subtle Jersey affectation, the grandparents’ attempted Italian accents came and went with varying degrees of accuracy throughout the production. As the only first generation immigrant, Dunn tried to give Frank the thickest accent of the group. However, as he pushed for the accent, he sometimes ended closer to sounding like Count Dracula than a passionate Italian. In portraying the Cristanos, Pimentel and Huefner each struggled to maintain consistency in their chosen accents. I noticed that the more passionate the dialogue, the less their accents came through. Interestingly, they each made up for it with convincing body language that embodied the traditional portrayal of the Italian culture.
I attended this production knowing nothing more about the show than its billing in Hale Centre Theatre advertisements, “Laugh a little, cry a little, a have a nice lasagna.” I admit to partaking in both the laughter and the tears as the show did just what I imagine it was designed to do: remind me of my own grandparents, reconsider my own priorities, and make me want to hop in the car to go spend time with those who laid the foundation for the life I have now. As I sat in the theater, I thought of all the people I wished were there with me: my parents, my in-laws, my friends. The value of this play is not in its production quality, although that was certainly high. The value of this production is its message, grounded beautiful in scenes that could have taken place in the living room of any grandparent and in the life of any grandchild. If you have an opportunity to go see this production, don’t pass it up.