Review: Warm and Wistful Comedy Explores Family Bonds

By: Oct. 17, 2016
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Biddeford's City Theater opened its season with a warm, wistful comedy about love and intergenerational relationships in a New Jersey Italian-American family. Joe Di Pietro's 1998 Over the River and Through the Woods is a funny, touching, and often penetrating memoir about ageless conflicts between old and young and the inevitable changes that come in relationships with the changing times. In the City Theater of Biddeford's production, these completely relatable memories come to life with vivid truthfulness.

Di Pietro captures the dynamics of the Cristano and Gianelli families worrying over their grandson's Nick's decision to accept a career promotion and move away, leaving the family bosom for unknown - and, in the elders' view, completely unnecessary - adventures. The central conflict is simple, and the resolution fairly predictable from the start, but the journey is filled with moments of hilarity, tension, frustration, and always underscored with love - love that has to learn to alter its needs and demands to meet new situations. The playwright keeps the action simple; in fact, it is the very quotidian nature of many of the scenes that makes them so familiar: a Sunday dinner conversation turned into ranting, a game of Trivial Pursuit into an absurdist conversation, an attempt to announce a momentous event into a culinary diversion. There is a tape-recorder like veracity to the dialogue that, together with the colorfulness of the characters, distinguishes Di Pietro's writing.

Directed by Linda Sturdivant, the comedy has a sure pace and a note-perfect alternation between tension and relaxing laughter. The cast works well as an ensemble, each member giving a rounded performance that carefully side-steps stereotypes. Karl Carrigan's unit set depicting a Hoboken apartment is attractive, cozy, and inviting, while Heather N. Crocker's lighting design adds a mellow warmth to the ambiance. Barbara Kelly dresses the cast in appropriately suburban outfits of the late 80s, and Todd Hutchisen completes the polished production with his sound design.

The six-person ensemble is anchored by the excellent performance of Tommy Walz as Nick Cristano. A valuable asset to the Maine theatre scene, Walz is a versatile actor who always brings a kinetic presence, excellence sense of timing, and sensitivity to his roles. His Nick captures just the right blend of exasperation, conflict, and warmth to make him an entirely empathetic protagonist. As his maternal grandparents, Frank and Aida Gianelli, Peter Salsbury and Gretchen G. Wood embody the warm, fuzzy, sometimes obtuse, but always unconditionally loving Italian relatives, while Paul Burnham and Doni Tamblyn as Nunzio and Aida Cristano give some feisty spice to the paternal grandparents. All four successfully make the transition at the end from comic misunderstanding to an embrace of values and a decision they do not comprehend with a poignant grace. Tara Golson turns in a subtle performance as the lonely, searching Caitlin O'Hare, whose brief relative-arranged encounters with Nick have the wistfulness of so many a missed opportunity of memory.

One doesn't need to be Italian-American to identify with Di Pietro's play; indeed, it is the story of shifting generational values and the tug between the human longing for the joys of a simpler world and the imperatives of a modern one. As the title invokes the Thanksgiving song with its memories of mellow family harmony, Di Pietro's Over the River and Through the Woods redefines the meaning of those family bonds for a new generation. City Theater is to be commended for programming this play and for its continued excellence of production standards.

Photographs courtesy of City Theater, Audra Hatch, photographer

Over the River and Through the Woods runs from October 14-23, 2016 at Biddeford's City Theater, 205 Main Street, Biddeford, ME 207-282-0849 www.citytheater.org



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