Scott Schaeffer and Bernardine Handler; photo provided
Over the River and Through the Woods by Joe DiPietro. Directed by Cathy Lee Visscher.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"We’ve been delightful!"
It is an interesting experience, seeing two productions of the same play within a little over a year. You have the opportunity to reexamine your perceptions of the play based on the directors’ visions of the work. There is a chance to see what you didn’t see, to feel something different based on different approaches to the same characters, the work, the people defined in the play. The Theater Barn opened its summer season in 2006 with this Joe DiPietro comedy about "famiglia" - family, and now the Ghent Playhouse opens its 2007-08 season with it. The play is still about "famiglia" but it has different resonance this time.
The play is really about my Jewish grandparents in the Bronx even if this on-stage foursome are Italian-Americans living in Hoboken, New Jersey. The human qualities of the immigrant Americans who strive to better the lot of their children, then hope to hold on to a European ideal of centralized family values, crippling the possibilities for their grandchildren, is almost a universal for many of us who grew up within those family strictures. To sit and watch these near-memory situations played out on stage is a spooky thing, like dreaming of dead relatives, like hearing the voices of your own past looming up in the darkness. Theater itself is a dream in which we sit in the dark and observe what transpires in a lighted area in front of us. It is three-dimensional, not flat-screen, and the people can be touched if you move too fast in their direction. In this play, for anyone who remembers what it is like to honor your grandparents, they move too fast and practically touch you.
The play is a comedy, however, and the laughs are all genuine in this production. A man of 29, who honors his commitment to "famiglia" dines on Sundays with his four grandparents. A quartet with a comfort zone that admits to tiny failures, such as driving badly, and cooking too much, they adore their grandson who is unmarried and harboring a difficult secret. He has been offered a major promotion and may have to move across the country and leave them behind. This is the situation that empowers the older generation; they charge into action in an attempt to find a reason for the young man to stay in place. This meager plot point holds the play together for nearly two hours. What grandson Nick discovers is how much he means to them and how far they will go to maintain their relationship with him.
Nick is played by Scott Schaeffer. He is big, burly, clumsy, tongue-tied and utterly charming as he bumbles, mumbles, insults his grandparents in an overly familiar manner, and keeps their affection strong through his haplessness. Schaeffer, like the others in the cast, seems to be Nick for real most of the time, seems never to be acting. His style of playing is probably key to the play’s success, for his intimate moments and his blustery ones all seem to be something we’re part of, not watching. The rest of this cast has taken his lead, it seems, and also feel more real than acted. The actors disappear into their roles.
The grandparents he visits, Aida and Frank Gianelli, are played by Bernardine Handler and Frank Lauria. Lauria makes Frank into a sweet, sympathetic man who can’t quite communicate his pain and his distress. In a monologue, which may be the best written speech in the play, about his own childhood and that of his daughter - Nick’s mother - he reveals the back story of a man whose ambition is cursed by a seemingly negligent father. Last year this speech moved me to tears, but this time it only took me to a time and place that made sense of the present.
Handler is lovely in her role. She plays a survivor who makes her life bearable through food. She brings a special beauty to this affectionate woman who can’t tolerate reality until she must and then she handles it with that certain flair that mothers, and grandmothers, seem to have. Handler should act more. She is worth watching.
Nick’s paternal grandparents, Emma and Nunzio Cristano, are played by Marie Allocca and Dick Griffin. Nunzio has a secret which he could use to hold his grandson in place, but after emotional soul-searching and a dancing love scene with his wife he decides to withhold it. His playing of this long decision is touching and strong. He almost dazzles in the role as we watch him struggle with his emotions. Allocca is a delight, as always. Her Emma, conniving, planning, handing out Mass cards on a regular basis, is a mover and a shaker. She sets up her grandson and when her efforts fail she cannot let things go. Allocca is never over the top here, but in control and, unlike so many actresses, always listening to the others, always reacting but never to the point where she steals a moment from someone else. If she is anything, it is involved with her role.
As Caitlin, the girl Nick is "supposed" to fall in love with to suit his grandparents, Jody Kordana has the most difficult role in the play. She vacillates from charming to rude, self-protective to manipulative. She plays it well and there is a charm to her demeanor that makes even the character’s worst moments acceptable.
Director Cathy Lee Visscher has done a very nice job with these people, keeping them natural and playing like the old acquaintances they are. We, in the dark, really are experiencing a deja vu compassion for Nick and his family.
The play has some difficulties. There is no consistent point of view in the writing. Too many of the characters have audience confronting monologues about who, what and why. Perhaps that is the reason the final scene loses some of its strength, in both recent productions. "Famiglia" and the sense of caring and taking care gets lost in the final moments when it should be paramount. This time, however, the naturalness of the acting may well have helped to overcome the shortcomings of the playwrighting.
Bill Visscher and Bill Camp have designed an elegant, Italian-American home for the Gianellis. Joanne Maurer has given them all the right clothes to wear which helps immensely with that sense of being there in memory. Ian Gulliver has sensitively lit the play keeping it alive and real as well.
While I dreaded seeing this simple play for the second time, it was actually nice to be "home" again with those family values that inform so much of the lives of the second generation Americans with whom I share that history. On stage at the Ghent Playhouse is a sweet and sensitive rendition of the lives of my contemporaries and probably some of yours as well. Pay a visit home again. It might explain a few things you never understood before.
Over the River and Through the Woods plays at the Ghent Playhouse through October 21. The Ghent Playhouse is located on Route 66 just west of Chatham, New York. For schedules, ticket prices and to order tickets call 518-392-6264 or go to their website: www.ghentplayhouse.org.