Over the River and Through the Woods
On a recent holiday visit with family back east, we spent a lot of time reminiscing about my grandparents, both of whom passed away last year. Jokes about my grandmother’s propensity to buy things on sale, regardless of her need for them, and my grandfather’s hatred of air conditioning despite 90-degree heat, ran rampant. Perhaps that’s why I found Joe DiPietro’s play, Over the River and Through the Woods, presented by Reno Little Theater, particularly touching.
From the first line of the play, in which the protagonist, Nick Cristiano (David Tolles), describes the heat of his grandparents’ house as “not ‘I should have worn short sleeves’ hot” but “August in Ethiopia hot,” the joy of familiarity warmed me to my toes.
Nick is a second-generation Italian-American who, at 29 years old, is too focused on his blossoming marketing career to appreciate the wisdom of his two sets of Italian grandparents, who live two doors from each other in their Hoboken, N.J., neighborhood. Each Sunday, Nick endures dinner in the sweltering home of his mother’s parents, Frank Gianelli (Doug Mishler), an immigrant carpenter, and his wife, Aida (Terri Bortot), an uneducated, non-driving genius with pasta dough who is constantly trying to feed people. They are soon joined by his father’s parents, Nunzio and Emma Cristiano (Gary Cremeans and Veronica Fraser), whom Nick describes as “the loudest people I’ve ever met.”
He usually rolls his eyes and tries to get an exasperated word in edgewise as they prattle on about the latest special at Shop Rite or Pathmark, or harp on him in stereotypical fashion to get married already. But on this evening, Nick has an announcement: He has been offered a lucrative promotion and intends to move to Seattle. The grandparents, all of whose kids and grandkids but Nick have already moved far away, are determined to stop him. The four conspire to get Nick to stay, even arranging a blind set-up with Caitlin O’Hare (Kara McNally), a young woman whom Emma met at the market.
The play isn’t driven so much by plot as by character—four relatable characters, who are each by turns irritating and lovable.
My sister-in-law, whose own grandparents hailed from Italy, accompanied me to the show and said she felt as if she had been watching her own grandmother in Aida, with her mustard yellow, polyester suit and incessant offers of provolone. Meanwhile, Emma, played by Fraser with spot-on authenticity, with all her pushiness, gossipy nature and her clear adoration for her husband of 60 years brought my own recently deceased grandmother to mind.
It seems the only person unmoved by these four is Nick, whom Tolles plays as somewhat unlikeable. While it’s easy to understand his occasional exasperation with their aimless ramblings and overbearing ways, he comes across not as a grown man frustrated at being treated like a child, but as a petulant child whom I couldn’t imagine being anyone’s head of marketing.
Some slips in accent—is it Italian or just New Jersey?—were also a little distracting, although it was opening night, when such mistakes will most likely happen. I also found the ending somewhat anticlimactic.
But none of this is why you would see this play anyway. It’s for moments like when Emma tells Nick, “You just expect too much. … We were told a good life is when you find a husband and have kids and put food on the table and send your kids to school, and you don’t die doing it—that’s a good life.” It’s for all the big and small moments you’ll relate to, and the way it will put your own family, and even your own life, into perspective.