Nick has spent every Sunday having dinner with his loving, infuriating grandparents in their Hoboken, New Jersey home. Every Sunday! But this Sunday, in the late 1980s, he has to tell them that he’s been offered an exciting career advancement … in Seattle.
When the beloved, if predictable, grandparents hear this shocking news, they begin hatching plots to keep him here at home. Tengo famiglia! The new Jewel Theatre production swiftly moves from funny to hilarious as the four elders argue about strategies to keep their grandson where he belongs—with them.
The charm of an adept ensemble cast makes Over the River and Through the Woods a welcome treat. It felt so good to laugh at grandparent jokes, moving to Florida jokes, why don’t you find a nice girl and get married jokes.
This cast milks each laugh for all its worth, and in the process lays out a slice of American life that’s slipping away fast; living close enough to our extended families to gather with them often, each meal blessing the ties that bind. Nick (an energetic Wallace Bruce) knows what he’s in for as he arrives at the home of his Nona, Aida (a flawless Anne Buelteman) and Frank (Rolf Saxon savoring a choice role).
Nick will be plied with food from the minute he arrives to the very last second of his stay. As a woman who has been winning the hearts of her family for decades with her abundant home cooked meals, Buelteman’s Aida is a picture-perfect Italian-American grandmother. Fussing, loving, cooking. Her husband, Frank, is experiencing those much-feared symptoms of geriatric driving. As they banter (yell), the other set of grandparents arrive. Emma (a scene-stealing Monica Cappuccini) and Nunzio (Marcus Cato, who has been specializing in feisty old men for four decades), are ready to eat and all are delighted to see Nick.
Poor Nick can barely get a word in edgewise. Attempting to get their attention to make his big announcement, his every word reminds each one of them of another story, or bit of gossip or pet peeve. Classic sit-com is alive and well on the Colligan Theater stage when these five wrestle with maintaining the status quo in the face of a potential huge change. “It’s just some job,” growls the wonderful Saxon. “This is family!”
That struggle, between a young man needing to leave and make his own way, and the huge tidal pull of the family who has watched him grow up, is at the heart of this comedy. Think of George Costanza’s parents in Seinfeld. Just as loud, just as combative, but with more obvious love.
How much do we owe to those who care for us? How do we balance the need to leave home, and the comfort of staying? Do we ever balance those forces? Each character takes a turn pleading their case, and in the process playwright DiPietro, writing from the heart, reminds us how the values of youth—for career, adventure, romance—inevitably transform into the simpler, deeper values of old age. And here poignancy can veer into sentimentality. But not too often.
Change and duration. The new, the old. Newcomers, family. These are old adversaries and the fun of Over the River and Through the Woods is to watch skillful actors shake these family trees into an uproarious harvest of one-liners.
Watching this cast work its way through a single frenetic round of Trivial Pursuit is worth the price of admission. A delightful finish to a memorable season, this production will remind you how good it feels to laugh out loud. Kudos to director Shaun Carroll!
Over the River and Through the Woods, by Joe DiPietro, directed by Shaun Carroll, Jewel Theatre Company production—The Colligan Theater, through June 18, 2023.