WEST JORDAN — “Tengo Famiglia!” This Italian refrain echoes through Joe DiPietro’s script, Over the River and Through the Woods, at Sugar Factory Playhouse. Located in Pioneer Hall, the small performance space built by the early settlers of the west valley butts up against an old cemetery: a fitting location for a play about the bonds of love, the wisdom of old age, and the power of family.
As the characters slip in and out of sharing memories with the audience directly, DiPietro’s script resists fixing itself in the small living space of the Gianelli family home. Our protagonist, 29-year-old Nick, is the adored grandson of all four of his grandparents who want nothing more than to keep him close and see him happily settled down. When a career opportunity threatens to take him away, the lively couples concoct plans to give him a reason to stay. Like any good sitcom, the ensuing action is both formulaic and funny, managing to touch on the universal tender emotions of family, age, and loss.
The production itself is a family affair with father and son duo Michael Dodge and Merrill Dodge playing grandson and grandfather Nick and Frank. The two are physically and expressively similar enough to add an additional layer of interest to the play. Michael Dodge faces a difficult challenge playing Nick, who spends most of the production riding long waves of exasperation followed by guilt. The younger Dodge was holding back emotionally, unable to fully inhabit or communicate Nick’s feelings. His vocal choices and gestures came across as forced rather than free and relaxed. The script is tightly written with familial dialogue intended to overlap and intermingle, but was delivered with too many pauses and breaks, as if the actors were not quite prepared for their queues.
However, there were many delightful moments where the more seasoned performers carried the script. While Merrill Dodge as Grandpa Frank, Gary Pimentel as Grandpa Nunz, and Kaye Woodworth as Granny Emma each had standout moments of storytelling and connection with each other, the standout performance of the show was Linda Garay as Grandma Aida. Aida putters and sputters around her beloved grandson with warm adoration and too much food. She explains how she raised herself from a wallflower of a girl into a strong-willed woman who knows what she wants. Aida is proud of the life she and her have husband built. Her closing monologue was touching and powerful. Garay and her mature cast mates took turns being playful, vulnerable, sweet, and spicy. Liza Tomkinson brought a delicate touch to what could be a throwaway, “desperate” female character when she arrives as a possible love interest for Nick. My attention on the engaging Tomkinson was unfortunately put at war with an overpowering choice of eye-makeup and a dinner scene spent with her back to the audience.
For the most part, Kate Rufener, director, and John Roh, assistant director, have tidily staged the living room comedy to invite the audience into the well-loved home of Nick’s grandparents. The glass grapes on the coffee table were identical to my own grandmother’s. As expected of a family story, the plot revolves around traditional Sunday dinners, and the cast handles the complicated business of setting out, dishing up, and sharing food like pros. The realism of the set and props throughout are why the use of a plastic sandwich in the first act was jarringly out of place. Otherwise, Kassidy Gulls’s props, costumes and set dressings added depth and clarity to the action. Simple lights and a sing-along-able soundtrack from Robbie Dalley compliment the production well. I also appreciated the bits of dramaturgy displayed around the theatre, including old family photos and stories from the cast members, that I got to explore during intermission. It’s clear that this community theatre production has been crafted with love and care. It warms the heart like one of grandma’s rolls, straight from the oven.