It’s got a TV sitcom vibe, for sure, centering on the Italian-American Gianelli home in Hoboken, N.J., in the late 1980s. The warm-hearted tale showcases both the frustrations and deep, profound love of family, and the challenges of life’s changes – of how we grapple with progress and pain.
In “Over the River” (which premiered in 1998 and ran two years Off-Broadway), DiPietro (who went on to Broadway success writing the books for “All Shook Up” and “Memphis”) has a razor-sharp ear for how families interact (regardless of their background) and it’s easy for audience members to relate to any one of these strong-willed, colorful characters.
He’s a New Jersey native, and seems to be writing from experience. I like the occasional use of monologues throughout and asides to the audience.
Nick (Tyler Henning) is a single 29-year-old marketing professional working in New York City, whose parents retired and moved to Florida, while his sister lives in California. But that doesn’t mean Nick lacks family: every Sunday, he heads “over the river” to New Jersey for dinner with all four of his loud and loving Italian-American grandparents.
Frank Gianelli (Kevin Babbitt) is prone to getting into car accidents and Nick wants to take away his keys, but he’s proud and stubborn. His wife Aida (Jackie Patterson) is the ultimate loving grandma eager to cook for anyone; “Who’s hungry?” is her stock phrase.
Nunzio Cristano (Jim Harris) is boisterous and passionate, with a secret health issue, and his perky wife Emma (Jackie Skiles) is eager to play matchmaker for Nick and see him settle down.
The weekly routine is comforting (who wouldn’t want to be enveloped in the focused, filling attention of four grandparents?), until Nick is offered an important promotion that would move him to distant Seattle.
His news doesn’t sit well with the grands, so they hatch a scheme to keep Nick close, by inviting the lovely, and single Caitlin (Elizabeth Shaffer) – the niece of Emma’s canasta partner — to Sunday dinner.
Will the prospect of true love keep Nick from moving across the country? As our level-headed, winning protagonist, Henning makes an outstanding Nick – in a natural, unforced performance that makes it seem he’s not acting at all.
The initial dinner scene with the cute, smiling, friendly Shaffer is prime sitcom material – the new guest (a fish out of water) plucked down into this affectionate, well-meaning nut house. Henning as Nick gets quickly annoyed with his grandparents’ comments (Aida is shocked Caitlin is vegetarian and turns down her veal), and after the meal, Caitlin is upset that he seemingly acted like a jerk toward them.
In a very emotional, understandable scene, Henning lashes out against the quartet of grands, tired of their constant judgment and criticism. Nick feels trapped, nitpicked and claustrophobic, yearning to break free and start a new life – in a new city, a new job, and choose for himself how he wants to live and who he spends life with.
But Babbitt, Patterson, Harris and Skiles are all deeply moving and touching in their own way – clearly communicating their love and concern for Nick. They obviously all want the best for him and the play’s tension rests in the life-altering decision that Nick must make – stay or go?
“How much do you owe to those who care for you?” Nick asks in the play’s second half, and we see how strongly a family influences future generations, with the importance of traditions, connection, education and food.
Under the compassionate, straightforward direction of RHP veteran Jennifer Kingry, “Over the River and Through the Woods” is an unforgettable visit to a realistic, close-knit family that I didn’t want to end.
The show will continue this weekend, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. in the Barn Theatre in Geneseo’s Richmond Hill Park. Tickets are $12 and available by calling 309-944-2244 or visiting the RHP website HERE.