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You don't need to be Italian to see 'Over the River'...

but it could help!

Posted: March 29, 2008 2:48 p.m.
Updated: May 29, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 
The title of the newest Canyon Theatre Guild production might throw more than a few people off. Most folks probably remember Over the River and Through the Woods as a holiday song (written in 1844 by Lydia Marie Child) about the wonderful times of visiting one's grandparents.

This play, written by Joe DiPiertro (author of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change), is as far removed from that delightful experience as Cuba Gooding, Jr. is from a decent film. It's the story of 29-year old Nick Cristano (Tony Cicchetti), who has eaten Sunday dinner with both sets of grandparents in Besonhurst (an Italian section of Brooklyn) since he was small.

Now that he's older, however, it's a love-hate relationship - he loves the food, but he hates much of the conversation.

Finally, when he is offered a better job in Seattle, his news hits like an atomic bomb. Evidently, the grandparents still think of Nick as 10-years old and do not want him to leave or better himself. It's a typical reaction of the older keepers of close-knit families when life begins to interfere with those relationships.

To younger, more nomadic types, however, this notion is as quaint as, well, riding a sleigh through the woods to grandmother's house. To be fair, though, Nick's sister and parents have already escaped the grandparents' dominant influence by relocating to Florida. To the seasoned citizens, Nick's desire for professional advancement makes no sense. All that matters is family ties, nothing else.

The play opens with one of many asides to the audience. Nick explains his situation and then goes back to interacting with his maternal ancestors, Frank and Aida Gianelli (played by real life couple Greg and Patti Finley). Soon, the other set, the more animated Nunzio and Emma Cristano (Joseph P. Miele and Jane Arnett), barges in and the home explodes in stereotypical ethnic conversation and gestures. It's like a house full of parents culled from half a dozen sitcoms.

The news that Nick wants to take a job all the way across the country is devastating to the foursome, who each react pretty much the same way - with utter disdain for their grandson's decision to try and better himself. They stop their bickering with each other long enough to try and convince him not to leave, even going as far as playing matchmaker for the dumpy, forlorn single guy.

The next Sunday, Emma arranges for the daughter of one of her canasta partners , the pretty but shy Caitlin O'Hara (Danielle Love) to just "show up." This is the first step in a disastrous repast which feature embarrassing revelations about Nick's personal life, some anti-Irish insults a humiliating rejection by Caitlin and Nick suffering a near heart attack.

After the intermission, he is forced to recuperate in the same house which caused him to collapse in the first place (see the irony here). It's during this time that he both suffers more anxiety attacks and learns why his grandparents have worked so hard to establish familial roots; and why their marriages have stayed so strong over the decades.

He attempts to exhibit some of this affection for Caitlin, with mixed results. It's a bit difficult to believe that that the fair-faced nurse could be desperate enough to want to be set up with Nick, but it's just as hard to fathom that she would then reject him for his completely understandable behavior.

Ultimately, whatever decision Nick makes about his future, it was dictated partly on the way he was raised by his family. The dicotome here is that he was taught strength and intelligence and independence by them, but when the time comes to actually use all of those attributes, the grandparents realize they may have taught him too well.

But don't let this serious message fool you; there are plenty of laughs in this production, many coming from a clash of cultures and intergenerational chasms which time and "progress" have little sympathy for.
One funny scene has the five playing "Trivial Pursuit," a game the older folks really don't get. But, in answer to which American author became an ambassador to Japan, Nunzio devises a complicated memory-recall effort which not only exasperates the huffing Nick, but actually comes up with the correct answer: Washington Irving (don't ask).

Most of the biggest guffaws, however, come from the fact that the grandparents have no clue how embarrassing they are to Nick, or that he's being ultra-sensitive.

The intimate cozy set includes the Gianelli's living room, dining room and porch. Much of the action, however, takes place around the huge table as the family feasts upon several meals during the play's 90-minute run time.

DiPietro's writing is sharp and poignant, with just enough pathos to keep it grounded, while director Ingrid Boydston uses all of her considerable skills to steer the ensemble cast away from either wallowing in maudlin or being ridiculously slapstick.

"There comes a time in each of our lives when we take all we have been taught (whether by chance or design) by our families, and begin to make choices which define our lives," said Boydston. "That's what Nick is going through. I think this play speaks to everyone in that regard. We all have tough decisions to make."

As far as the cast, all doing outstanding jobs with timing and accents, but three, Cicchetti, Patti Finley and Miele exceeded all expectations of this scribbler.

Like a young nebbish Adam Arkin (Busting Loose, The West Wing, Boston Legal, Life), the sad sack Cicchetti bellows and blusters while his grandparents innocently humiliate him. He tries to convince them of this until he's blue in the mouth - to no avail. His frustration at his grandparents' inability to understand his plight is also a revelation of this man's talent.

Finley is wonderful as grandma Aida, soft and warm and a true believer that a good Italian meal can cure anything, from emotional turmoil to questions of the heart. She seems to have perfectly channeled the spirit of Esther Minciotti (who played the mother in 1955's Marty). When she finally drops her maternal veneer, however, her heartbreak is very real.

As far as Miele, he is a bundle of Neapolitan energy, bopping about while telling (and re-telling) the story of how he met Emma and then dancing with her to "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," but also hiding a dreadful secret. It's a layered, nuanced, often hilarious performance.

Others involved in this production include John Morris (assistant director), Flo Loring (producer), Tim Christianson (stage manager, lighting), Leslie Berra (sound design), Carla Bambo (set decoration), Amber Van Loon (assistant stage manager), Sam Hyde (lights) and Gary Schamber and Joe Swartz (set design).

Over the River and Through the Woods runs until April 19 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., on Sundays at 1 p.m. and on Thursday, April 17 at 8 p.m. The Canyon Theatre Guild is located at 24242 Main Street in Newhall. For reservations or ticket information, call 799-2702.

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