Reviewed by Deborah E. Burns, October 2007

Everyone knows the old song, but the grandparent visit is far from what it once was. In a lively production by the Ghent Playhouse, “Over the River and Through the Woods” examines the gulf between generations, celebrates age and family -- and showcases four fine actors of grandparent age.

Nick (Scott Schaefer), a 29-year-old marketing executive, dutifully visits his four Italian grandparents in Hoboken, NJ, for dinner every Sunday. He’s the sole representative of the younger generation still in the area: his parents have moved to Florida, his sister to California, and the only uncle died in Korea. The action begins when he drops in one Thursday evening to announce that he’s received a promotion and must move to Seattle.

“There’s nothing keeping me here,” he says, unthinkingly. And they respond in dismay, “What about us?” His grandparents are devastated, the grief of previous losses all accumulating and landing squarely on Nick.

The set (by Bill Visscher and Bill Camp), complete with chintz curtains and slipcovers, photos of family and the Pope, and an afghan on the armchair, depicts the slightly stuffy living room of Nicky’s maternal grandparents, Frank (Frank Lauria) and Aida (Bernardine Handler). Frank’s father forced him to leave Italy for America at age 14, something Frank still finds painful and bewildering. Long retired as a carpenter, it’s past time for him to surrender his car keys and stop driving, relinquishing one more layer of a man’s identity. First his career, now his car (for him the symbol of manhood since he bought his first one), and when Nicky leaves Frank will have outlived the role of patriarch.

“Tengo famiglia,” he often says. “I have a family.” It means more in Italian: “I support a family and it’s my reason to be alive.” Frank and his generation live by the three Fs: family, faith, and food.

Aida is, according to Frank, an “Einstein in the kitchen” – and sure enough, at least 75 percent of her lines seem to involve food. “Who’s hungry?” is her refrain, and she exerts a strong and quite hilarious passive-aggressive streak as she offers sandwiches and debates their ingredients, or delays Nicky’s announcement at the last second by suggesting they all have a nice crumb cake from Pathmark (or is it Shoprite?). She insists on care-giving, whether the recipient wants it or not. With her lovely smile and terrific comic timing, actress Handler pulls this off impeccably, without becoming a cliché.

The other pair of grandparents, Nunzio and Emma, live nearby, and Nunzio has a secret. This role is played extremely effectively and movingly by Dick Griffin – one of the high points of the show and on its own a reason to see this production.

Emma, as played by Marie Allocca, is bright and warm, but she has her own skills of manipulation – and many very funny lines. She is determined to see her grandson married “before I’m dead,” she tells him again and again, in different words.

At the center of it all is Nick, played by Schaefer, a high-school teacher in his first significant theatrical role, who is, appropriately, almost too big for the cozy set. Unusual as a representative of the modern generation, Nick is devoted and dutiful in the larger sense, even as he chafes and grouses under the grandparents’ constant “judgment, interference, and criticism.” He has risen in his profession through his own talents and it’s time for him to move on, experience a different world, and make a new start on his own, somewhere other than where his family landed and stayed.

Ingenious Emma comes up with a scheme that might keep Nick nearby: she invites a young woman, Caitlin (clearly and convincingly played by Jody Kordana), to dinner. Caitlin concludes that Nick is unkind to his grandparents, which is one “off” note in the production, since he comes across as to the audience as gentle and compassionate. At any rate, the evening becomes a turning point for Nick.

The immediate conflict is whether Nick will leave or stay. The larger struggle is about one generation giving way to another: control of one’s own life vs. loyalty to family, a theme that’s especially dramatic when served with Italian seasonings. What Nick sees as criticism, his grandparents see as caring. The generations use the same words but speak different languages. “I’ve never had a chance to live anywhere else!” he says. “Well, I’ve never lived anywhere else,” replies a grandfather, not understanding Nick’s restlessness.

One aspect of loving someone is supporting their dreams, which can be terribly difficult for family when it means fracture and fragmentation. It’s especially hard when the younger generation’s dreams are so very different – no longer the three Fs, but a future fully part of the larger American dream. This is exactly why Frank’s father made him leave Italy. It’s the path or “destiny” of the immigrant and the first-generation American, and Nick’s choice is whether to carry on those dreams and realize a fourth, crucial F: fulfillment.

Nick saw his grandparents’ lives as if they were a black-and-white photo; yet he also comes to perceive aspects that are "splashed with color," in his words: the private, quiet moments, the homemade music and dancing, the simple things. Ideally, he’ll carry those values with him on his journey and create them anew.

The script excels in the details, the small interchanges, interruptions, misunderstandings, and glimpses of character. It’s less strong in the overview, most obviously in ignoring the fact that the good-hearted Nick already has given his grandparents so much, in being present in their lives for so long. But with Cathy Lee Visscher directing, this is a warm, hearty production of a moving, relevant story. And a pleasure to look forward to in this production, which runs through October 21, will be to watch the cast ease into their roles and their ensemble work and start to have even more fun together.

The play runs about an hour and 50 minutes, including intermission, and would be fine for the entire family. The temperature in the theatre was very comfortable on a cool October day.

Over the River and Through the Woods runs weekends through October 21, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007

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