MORRISTOWN, NJ - Joe Di Pietro’s “Over the River and through the Woods” is an illuminating play about family relationships, the pull of the past and the dreams of the future.
Nick is a 29-year-old single guy, living in Manhattan, who has been offered a promotion in Seattle. When he tells his two sets of grandparents, who live in Hoboken, they are devastated by the idea that he might leave them. So they contrive a plot for him to meet an eligible young woman, fall in love and, of course, stay.
This story could have been a saccharine mess, but thanks to DiPietro’s sharp writing, it tells a story both bittersweet and hopeful.
The play on words is delightful, as when Nick says he’s seeing a psychiatrist and his grandfather asks what’s that, a foot doctor? Or when his almost-girlfriend Kate says she’s a vegetarian and a grandparent explains, “That’s an animal doctor.” The jokes go on from there, but I shouldn’t reveal all the engaging surprises that lay in store.
Eric Hafen has directed a superb cast that blends seamlessly in the comfortable Hoboken home. Michael Bernardi as Nick quickly displays both the love and frustration of negotiating his way through the needy family members.
Ed Schiff as Frank Gianelli is commanding, yet vulnerable in his reluctance to give up driving. When he tells Nick about coming to this country from Italy at the age of 14, he weaves a magical spell of his father’s sacrifice, which he didn’t understand at the time.
His wife, Aida, is played by Nancy Lee Ryan. When Nick says what matters in this household is “family, faith and food,” that comes across loud and clear as Aida tries to ply everyone with all sorts of Italian dishes. Cooking and feeding, she’s determined to show, is the answer to everything.
Teri Sturtevant as Emma Cristano brings a quirky warmth to the role of Nick’s other grandmother. Always the busybody, interfering and determined to find Nick a ‘nice young woman,’ she adds just the overwhelming human touch that is both infuriating and irresistible. One of the hilarious bits is when Nick tries to make an announcement as Emma, especially, just can’t seem to simmer down.
Jerry Marino is Nunzio Cristano, and is priceless when in a circuitous way he comes up with an answer to a trivial pursuit question, garnering huge audience applause.
Noreen Hughes as Caitlin is lovely as the young woman the grandparents think will be a perfect match for Nick. By the end of the play, he realizes how much his grandparents have given him and how they have had their own journeys of love, disappointment, laughter and romance.
Bill Motyka has designed a homey set of living room and dining room, firmly set in 1940’s décor that barely allows for modern conveniences. The play was first developed at Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in 1994 and has been updated, but not too much.
Lighting by Thomas Rowe helps define the shifting scenes, especially for monologues when the different characters confront the audience.
Although the Bickford is a large theatre, seating 300, every word could be heard from these actors, who know how to project. DiPietro has written the popular “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” which has also been done at the Bickford.
“Over the River and through the Woods” is a perfect send-off for the start of the holiday season, when family brings us back again and again to those we love. Performances continue through Dec. 4 at the Bickford, located in the Morris Museum, Normandy Heights Road, Morristown. For tickets, call 973-971-3706 or visit BickfordTheatre.org.