Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2005
We have all heard the old saying “Old age is not for sissies.” Well, it would be hard to tell that old age is a time of change and challenge based on the four senior citizens depicted in Joe DiPietro’s comedy Over the River and Through the Woods currently running at the Theater Barn. At one point Grandfather Nunzio says cheerfully, “We’re old. We’re adorable.” The line gets a big laugh and aptly sums up how DiPietro and director Michael Marotta view and portray old age. Bottom line: If you like your old folks adorable, this is the show for you.
DiPietro’s play focuses on Nick Cristano (John Waltz), a 25 year old Italian Catholic who lives in New York City. Both his father’s parents Nunzio and Emma Cristano (John Noble and Donna Gould Carsten) and his mother’s parents Frank and Aida Gianelli (John Trainor and Carol Charniga) live close to each other in Hoboken, New Jersey. Nick’s parents and his only sibling have moved to Florida and California respectively, and Nick, as a dutiful and loving grandson, goes to his maternal grandparents for Sunday dinner every week where the family gathers to eat and bicker. Then Nick receives a promotion which requires him to move to Seattle, Washington. The play revolves around Nick’s announcement, his grandparents’ reaction, and how that effects his ultimate decision.
I am happy to report that opening night at the Theater Barn was completely packed and everyone there seemed to be having a whale of a time. Except me. At times like that I panic and ponder my inadequacies. I am not “ethnic” enough. I wasn’t raised a Roman Catholic. My grandparents had all passed on by the time I was two and so I didn’t have them in my life. Maybe if I was Italian or Catholic or had been blessed with grandparents who drove me crazy well into my twenties I would “get it.” Or maybe I just have a different understanding of old age.
Last week, when I saw and reviewed Joan Ackermann’s The Ice Glen at Shakespeare & Company, I complained about two older characters in the play who were depicted as so warm, wise, loving, and lovable as to be unbelievable. My “date” on that occasion was a woman in her early eighties, who spent much of our traveling time together talking, as older people do, about her long, varied, and ordinary life. Older people need to “unpack” their lives and look at their flow in order to try to understand where they have been, who they are, and what, if anything, they feel they have accomplished. Mortality is a terrible and terrifying thing, and if you are lucky enough to live a long life its inevitability can consume you.
DiPietro gives us four “adorable” and comedic older people. Despite the fact that Nunzio, Emma, Frank, and Aida each get soliloquies in which they reveal intimate details about themselves, they never unpack enough of their lives to become more than caricatures. I am sure that DiPietro was writing from the heart and remembering his own grandparents or other older people in his life fondly, but no one of any age is all wise, warm, loving, and lovable. Even the people we hold most dear have their flaws and weaknesses, and we all know it deep down. DiPietro’s older characters seem to exist as if in a perpetual eulogy – where only the good is recalled and the unhappy, annoying, and downright dull moments of life are glossed over.
There is a sixth character in the play, a young woman named Caitlin O’Hare (Laura Binstock), the daughter of Emma’s canasta partner who the grandparents invite over one Sunday in the hopes that she and Nick will fall in love at first sight and therefore he will stay on the east coast. DiPietro makes her also way too good to be true. Caitlyn IS Nick’s perfect match (what are the odds?), but her existence and the minor tension over whether or not their relationship will blossom and cause him to turn down the promotion is too obviously a writer’s device and not something driven by character.
With all this sweetness and light and adorableness swirling around him, the character of Nick, who is only doing what young people normally do in separating from his birth family and seeking to establish his own life, comes across as ungrateful and whiney. When Caitlyn turned down his invitation on a “real date with no relatives” because she was appalled by the way she has seen him treat his grandparents, I was completely on her side.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Waltz is one of the weaker actors on the stage. I’m sorry, but he didn’t look Italian to me, and the moustache didn’t help convince me. I think my entire reaction to the show would have been different with a stronger actor in the role who could have convinced me of Nick’s affection as well as his frustration with his grandparents.
John Trainor, an actor whose work I enjoy and respect, was also not “ethnic” enough for the role of Frank. He played competently and certainly made his substantial contribution to the adorableness quotient, but he wasn’t quite right for the part. I had a similar feeling about Carsten as Emma (what kind of an Italian name is Emma??) only my complaint with her was that she was too young to be convincing as a woman married 55 years. She did give an affecting performance, particularly in her later scenes when Emma collaborates with her beloved Nunzio to keep important information from Nick. I think I ultimately liked Carsten because her Emma was less adorable and more real.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Charniga as Aida was so darned adorable I wanted to gag. Her portrayal of the stereotypical uneducated, food obsessed Italian Mama was cloying and bordered on offensive.
I got the biggest kick out of John Noble as Nunzio. Noble plays an adorable old coot with a mischievous good humor. Also, DiPietro has given his character more of a reality based storyline, which gives him some depth and believability that the other characters lack.
Binstock is an appealing young woman, but she is saddled with such a poorly written and implausible character that she was doomed before she even started. Better to wait until she tackles a role with more substance before passing judgement.
All of that carping aside, I did truly love the Trivial Pursuit scene in the second act. DiPietro, very possibly writing from memories of real conversations, perfectly captures the way the older (dare I even admit the way the middle aged) mind works as it tries to dredge up long-ago facts, faces, and names. Although I do truly believe that one of the major things we forget as we age is how much we used to forget when we were young, anyone who has ever stood there stupidly referring to a movie actor as “that guy” or “the woman with the hair” while a face floats through your memory and a name completely evades you will get a kick out of this scene.
I also enjoyed the musical interlude where the whole cast joined in singing Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn’s Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby as they danced and Trainor accompanied them on the ukulele. Marotta and the cast captured a really heart warming family moment there and it received a well deserved round of applause.
Another wonderful thing in this production is Abe Phelps’ and Roger Mason’s x-ray set depicting simultaneously the interior and exterior of the Gianelli house. Phelps is credited as the set designer and Mason is billed as the scenic artist, but whatever combination of talents produced that white picket fence and tree with its leaves gently blowing in the breezes – kudos!
Allen Phelps’ lighting was a little heavy handed, especially as it switched from naturalistic for the group scenes to dramatic to indicate the inner monologues of the soliloquies. The costumes by Celestine were trying a little too hard. Old people don’t have to dress like old people. And no young marketing executive dresses the way s/he dressed Nick.
As I said at the outset, everyone except me had a really great time at this show. I am just the ethnically challenged, grandparent deprived, way-too-WASP-y curmudgeonly critic in this case, but the only opinion I have to give is my own. If Over the River and Through the Woods sounds appealing to you, I urge you to give it a try. I have been known to be wrong.
Over the River and Through the Woods runs through June 26 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005