by Hugh Hunter
An enduring favorite of community theater, “Over the River and Through the Woods” (1998) is a warm homage to generational continuity. The spirited revival at Allens Lane Theater pulls out all the stops but cannot fully overcome the anomalies in playwright Joe DiPietro’s script.
Twenty-nine-year-old Nick is noticeably on edge at the family Sunday dinner. With his parents now living in Florida and his sister recently relocated to sunny California (remember all those folks who used to trek to California to “find themselves”?), the family is now reduced to Nick and his four grandparents. Now Nick, too, wants to move on.
“Over the River” is a string of flashbacks, Nick’s remembrance of his Brooklyn, Italian-American family, with their “tengo familia” maxim and their “3-F” code of value: faith, family and food. Director Marilyn Yoblick creates a comfortable family home and uses lighting to make dramatic use of stage eaves.
Her casting of the four grandparents is especially strong. All assemble at the home of grandfather Frank (Ben Kendall) and wife Aida (Linda Palmarozza). When the other grands, Nunzio (Dan Gudema) and Emma (Michele Loor Nicolay), join them for Sunday dinner, they become a kind of string quartet playing a comical counterpoint of loveable antics.
Frank reminisces how much his Italian father sacrificed to send him to America to pursue golden dreams. Wife Emma reflexively tries to cure all family turmoil by cooking up dishes. Nunzio makes colorfully caustic remarks about everything, and Emma cooks up a romantic interest for Nick as she tries to keep him in the family nest. They stand united in their hatred of new-fangled gadgets like the VCR and Chinese food.
These old-timers were so adorably authentic that everyone in the theater was laughing — except Nick (Keinan McCartney). He is frustrated at not being able to tell them about his new, exciting “opportunity.” Nick only changes after love interest Caitlin (Sarah Heddins) gives him a wake-up call.
Any production of “Over the River” is a tough slog. DiPietro’s Nick is not an engaging character. Unlike his sparkling grandparents, Nick is whiney and petulant. The audience audibly moaned when he cried out, “There is nothing for me here!” and there is no true personality in his renewed interest in his grandparents’ lives. He seems perpetually lost in trying “to find myself.”
Pasting on a happy ending, Nick tells us that he found a new life and formed his own family in the spirit of his grandparents. But you see nothing of this new life, and you do not really believe him. While the portrait of first generation Italian-Americans is funny and affecting, Nick is almost a poster child for the “millennial” stereotype of self-absorption, the exact opposite of the generational continuity DiPietro wants to celebrate.
Allens Lane Theater is located at 601 W. Allens Lane. “Over the River and Through the Woods” will run through Jan 27. Tickets available at 215-248-0546.