You may recall Over the River and Through the Woods as the title of a song you learned and sang in school at holiday time, but in the capable hands of playwright Joe DiPietro, it's a loving ode to family, in this case, two pairs of exasperating immigrant grandparents. And it's one you can experience in a terrifically funny and poignant production onstage at the Bickford Theatre just in time for Thanksgiving.
At the age of 29, marketing executive Nick Cristano has continued to visit his two sets of grandparents, the Gianellis and the Christanos, in Hoboken every weekend, long after his parents have moved to Fort Lauderdale and his sister to San Diego. When he proudly (and with some trepidation) announces that he has received a prestigious promotion that necessitates his relocation to Seattle, an uproar ensues. Invoking their motto, "tengo familia" (support the family or family first), the four senior citizens hatch a plan to keep their beloved grandson in the metropolitan area. Their secret weapon: the lovely nurse, Caitlin O'Hare, granddaughter of Emma's canasta partner, who seems content to go along with the scheme but is appalled by Nick's brusque treatment of his Nans and Granpas. Will true love win out? Will Nick leave New York for a new environment to find the adult he really is? Will "tengo familia" trump that quest? (Above: Michael Bernardi as Nick, looks on as his grandparents, Teri Sturtevant, Jerry Marino, Nancy Lee Ryan and Ed Schiff discuss his future.)
In DiPietro's tender hands and under Eric Hafen's strong direction, the play moves inexorably to its conclusion (no spoiler here) without feeling rushed. Thomas Rowe's well-placed lighting is put to good use by DiPietro's conceit of having various characters step to the front of the stage to speak directly to the audience. Too, Bill Motyka's set depicting the old-fashioned Gianelli living room and dining room provides the proper canvas for this family drama. Best of all, Hafen has cast five seasoned actors and one newcomer to enact the serious life and death, albeit comedic, conflict the actors encounter as their lives literally unwind.
As Nick, Michael Bernardi has an ease and authority not often seen in a young actor. His convincing, natural delivery immediately sets the affectionate tone, as communicates the equal parts of irritation and love these four people evoke in him. He's quite droll as he describes the tropical climate in the house and "convinces" his grandfather to discontinue driving after several accidents. Yet when he says, "There's really nothing" to keep him in the New York City area, you want to smack him for dismissing his grandparents so off-handedly. However, the love and frustration Bernardi’s character feels for his grandparents is palpable.
The Gianellis—Ed Schiff as Frank and Nancy Lee Ryan as Aida—and the Cristanos—Jerry Marino as Nunzio and Teri Sturtevant as Emma—are loud, hovering and clueless about the man their little Nicky has become. Just watching and listening to the quartet shush each other so Nick can make his announcement is especially funny. Ryan (right) bustles to and fro from the kitchen (where she's Einstein despite her lack of education, Nick tells us) on a never-ending journey to feed her family. Sturtevant produces Mass cards for Nick repeatedly, with the fond wish that they will get him on God's good side (and secure a mate in the process). Schiff has an especially heartrending conversation with Nick that describes his feelings for his father, who sent him to America at the age of 14, and Marino's account of how Nunzio won Emma's hand by singing under her window every night for a week is equally as touching. Yes, these people are indeed maddening, but very sympathetic in light of the fact that their own families have, for all intents and purposes, abandoned them.
As the bait, Caitlin O'Hare, Noreen Hughes exhibits the good humor of a young woman, lonely and in her words, desperate, who is used to keep Nick on the East Coast. She's especially effective as she scolds Nick for his treatment of his grandparents, especially when she relates the story of her own grandmother. The interplay between Hughes and Bernardi feels right and we hope that they will get together at the end. (Above left: family says grace before dinner.)
Catherine Mason's costumes aptly convey the passage of time, especially Aida's housedresses and Nick's attire. My only quibble with the production is the lack of any accent or cadence that would define the senior citizens as immigrants. Schiff almost gets it right in the oration about his father; if his character really had come to America at 14, his vocal chords would have hardened and he would have some trace of accent.
Lest you think that "tengo familia" applies only to Italian families, think again. This could be a Jewish family, an Irish family, a Latino family—heck, any family where generations live in close proximity and whose lives are intertwined. Perhaps that doesn't happen so often anymore, with young people leaving the nest to travel and settle in far-flung places, connected by Skype, cellphones and e-mail. But Over the River and Through the Woods reminds us that whenever love, tradition and ambition collide, "tengo familia."
Over the River and Through the Woods will be performed at The Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, through December 4. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.971.3706 or visit online.