OREM — If a comedy features grandparents who shove food down people’s throats, mistakenly call a Blue-Ray machine a sting-ray, and take 5 minutes of long-winded discussion to answer a question during a game of Trivial Pursuit, you might go. If the cast happens to be as talented as the actors at Hale Center Theater Orem, you have to go. Over the River and Through the Woods is a delight not just because the playwright Joe DiPietro is Neil Simon reincarnated, but because Jayne Luke as the grandma Aida Gianelli could take on Betty White’s wit and poise any day. If I’m a sucker for good writing, then I’m obsessed with good writing and strong actors—a formidable combination currently on stage at the Hale.
In the show, the young and unmarried Nick Cristano (played by Tanner Frederiksen) lives in New Jersey near his Italian-American grandparents, whom he visits weekly, even though they drive him slightly crazy. When Nick gets a job offer that would relocate him to Seattle, his family-oriented grandparents set him up on a blind date with Caitlin O’Hare (played by Meg Flinders), so that he has something worth staying in New Jersey for besides themselves. The show, directed by Rodger Sorensen, hammers a simple message into the audience’s brains: despite the quirks of its members, family matters.
I thought that message both when I laughed at the grandparents mistaking vegetarians for animal doctors and when I cried during the monologue delivered by Frank Gianelli (played by David Weekes) about leaving his family in Italy to immigrate to America. The beauty of this show is that the height of its comedy does not surpass the depth of its heart; both elements uplift equally.
Only a solid cast can achieve that effect. I was impressed with how the actors tackled the long scenes with no hiccups. During the dinner that the grandparents arranged to set up Nick and Caitlin, Flinders had this perfect face of politely laughing off the grandparents’ uncomfortable comments. I loved the way Luke played her line during a disagreement with Nick: she conceded, “Maybe I’m wrong” to him and then, in a snarky aside to the audience, “But I’m not.”
Jim Dale, in the role of Nunzio Cristano, was the only cast member who I thought played the comedy a little bigger than it needed to be, but he was still enjoyable to watch. Additionally, I was a little uncertain about everyone’s accents (supervised by dialect coach Dianna Graham), which sometimes got lost in the lengthy scenes.
The design elements enhanced the realism of the show. Dennis Wright’s costuming fit these characters perfectly. I especially loved all of the hodgepodge of colors and patterns on Mary Jane Smith’s character, Emma Cristano. A small gripe I had was with Caitlin’s outfit for the dinner date; her mustard yellow dress and turquoise sneakers seemed ill-paired and not particular to the time period.
I felt like I was sitting in the stuffy, perfumed air of an older couple’s home thanks to Bobby Swenson’s immersive set design. Complete with doilies on the table and wallpaper on the wall, it was his level of detail and the authenticity of the pieces he used that created a highly convincing aesthetic. A forgivable breach in that look was two grey armchairs with tasseled pillows that looked like they belonged more to a Pottery Barn catalogue than an older Italian couple living in Hoboken, New Jersey in the late 1990s.
A favorite moment from Ryan Fallis’s lighting came toward the end of the show when the grandparents were seated around the stage. As Nick narrated the ends of their lives individually, a bright light shone on each actor and then dimmed to a dark blue. Instead of immediately dimming the lights above them, the moment of bright light implied that some transcendent event illuminates loved ones at their passing—a subtle and meaningful choice.
When I review, I tend to write lots of nit-picky notes. With Over the River and Through the Woods, I wanted to curb that impulse because writing anything, even for a few seconds, might mean I miss out on the captivating comedy and heart I was privy to for a brief two hours. By the end of the evening, that stuffy, overcrowded room I was transported to was a hard place to leave because the cast, director, and designers made me feel like part of the family of Over the River and Through the Woods.