PROVO — The great thing about grandparents is they don’t have the responsibilities of a parent, so they are free to just love their grandchildren without any limitations. All of my grandparents have passed on but I have many happy memories of visiting with them, particularly one set that I enjoyed Sunday dinners with each week when I was in college. They could be handfuls at times, but their love built me up, and I still look at those moments with great fondness. This is the experience captured in Joe DiPietro‘s script Over the River and Through the Woods now playing at the Covey Center for the Arts in their Black Box theatre.

Show closes March 4, 2023.

This is not the first time Covey Center has put on this play. In fact, one of the stars Robinne Booth (who plays Emma) has previously acted and directed a production there in 2018. Lon Keith as Frank Gianelli and Ben Wake as Nunzio Cristano also return from that production. I didn’t see that production, but I can only imagine having actors so familiar with the material and each other helps sell the group as a family and adds to the chemistry of all involved. If I had been told the actors were actual family members I could have believed it.

The real standout of this production is Matthew DelaFuente as Nick Cristano. I will definitely be following his career from here on out because he brought depth to what could be a cliched role. I noticed him acting in small ways that made a big difference. For example, in a tender scene towards the end he cries very convincingly and wipes his tears with his tie. Since it is business that is taking him away this was a small but moving choice for him as an actor.

In many ways his character and the script as a whole reminds me of a young Ray Romano. In fact, the grandma character Aida, played by Arlene McGregor, is very similar to the way Romano describes his Mother in a famous bit called “How to Deal with Italian Mothers.” I’m not saying DiPietro lifted this routine from Romano, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it influenced him (it was released in 1992). Regardless, they are both very funny, and as someone who had a “food grandma,” I chuckled as Aida forced her full grandson to eat another sandwich.

Being a small black box theatre, the production elements for Over the River… are simple but effective. The team of 6 behind the scenic construction have created the living and dining room of the Gianelli’s complete with a mantle, fireplace and dining room table. The most impressive sequence production-wise is a long scene during a family meal where the actors eat a lot of food and played off each other very well. Most of the time in theater actors “eat” plastic or imaginary food but this was actual veal, bread, and later ravioli. It might seem like a small detail but it added to the immersive feel of the production and stage manager Elise Lacanieta should be praised for her efforts in pulling this all off seamlessly.

Over the River… first premiered Off-Broadway in 1994 and it definitely feels like a play written in the early 90s. The biggest tell is the lack of any kind of social media, internet, or computers in the script. If it was written today the grandparents would be grappling with connecting with their great-grandchildren over Facebook and trying to figure out how to log on to Instagram. Instead we have conflict like Frank not being able to drive any more and Nick moving to Seattle because of a new promotion at work. It’s likely the decision to move wouldn’t be as difficult for Nick today because he would be able to stay connected with his grandparents despite living across the country, or at least his guilt would be assuaged by this idea.

Being set in the 90’s, it is impressive how frankly the play handles mental illness and Nick’s panic attack at the end of Act 1. As someone who has had a panic attack, DelaFuente depicts what the experience is like perfectly. The grandparents may make jokes about Nick going to a “head doctor,” but for the era addressing the situation at all in a comedy is surprising.

They do take the time to explain why Nick is the only one of the family to visit his grandparents. His parents are in Florida, and his sister is in San Diego. But it’s surprising these vivacious senior citizens would only have Nick for entertainment. I bet in reality they would be busybodies over at the senior center, and be quick to go to Florida with their children. Many seniors do this that live in New York City. Also it is unlikely that both sets of grandparents would spend so much time together. It seems like most people I know the sets of grandparents are friendly but not regular support systems of each other.

If I’m going to nitpick, the title for the play is strange. Yes the traditional folk song talks about visiting Grandmother’s house but it really doesn’t tell us much about the comedy and characters we’re going to enjoy in the play. Obviously the folks at Covey have no control over that. It’s just something I noticed.

All that said, the production of Over the River and Through the Woods at the Cover Center for the Arts took me back to a time when my grandparents were still alive and anxious for mine and my cousins’s happiness more than anything else. I was so impressed with DelaFuente’s performance and the whole thing was a wonderful way to spend a Friday night. I highly recommend heading to Provo and being part of this family for the evening.

Over the River and Through the Woods plays at the Covey Center for the Arts 425 West Center Street, Provo, UT, on February 9 through March 4, 2023 on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM.  Tickets are $18-$20. For more information, visit