The Generation Trap
Over the River and Through the Woods (written by Joe DiPietro and directed by Kenneth Kay) is one of those plays that you walk out of saying, "Gee, my mother would have loved that," and lo and behold, you look around and there is your mother -- and all of her friends. The Caldwell Theatre Company has been putting on excellent theater for many years. That said, this particular play must be described as offering the two things that seem to please senior citizens the most: lots of laughs and a few good cries. Ironically, the audience mirrors a generation gap that is more disturbing than the one portrayed on stage.
The play tells the story of Nick (John D'Aquino), the grandson of four Italian immigrants, who is climbing his way to the top of the ladder as an advertising executive in New York City. Despite his busy schedule, Nick finds time every Sunday to take the bus into Hoboken, New Jersey, to have dinner with his maternal grandparents, Frank and Aida (Arland Russell and Harriet Oser), and his paternal grandparents, Nunzio and Emma (Tom Troupe and Elayne Wilks). One Sunday, Nick announces that he has been awarded a promotion requiring him to move to Seattle and that he has decided to take it. This sets off a harebrained scheme on the part of his grandparents. In a desperate attempt to keep him from moving, they invite Caitlin (Lara MacGregor), the unmarried niece of Emma's canasta partner, to Sunday dinner, hoping that Nick will fall in love with her. An innovative plot is not this play's strength, although DiPietro does manage to throw in a couple of surprises and steer clear of a fairy-tale ending. This is quite an accomplishment, considering that the play is rather like a television sitcom.
Over the River and Through the Woods dramatizes a conflict to which almost any American can relate. Even if we are not the children or grandchildren of immigrants, we are the children and grandchildren of people whose values are very different from our own. This play explores the Italian version of the clash. The set, by Tim Bennett, could hardly be more working-class Italian-American -- an overstuffed couch with an afghan thrown across, statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus with his Sacred Heart, a bad replica of Leonardo's Last Supper hanging over the dining room table. The set doesn't change, but a screen door and front-porch step on stage right give it some versatility and allow for private dialogues.
Nick must confront the deeply held belief that family is paramount and all decisions should be made accordingly. The drama is based on a paradox of traditional values versus contemporary standards. It is obvious to Nick that success does not lie in marrying at age 18, working in a factory to provide for his family, and spending his entire life with one person, as he explains to his grandparents when he loses his temper over their matchmaking scheme. "Today we do things different," he lectures them. "We don't marry at 18. We have careers and make money and then we pick and choose a person very carefully and we do it when we're good and ready!" Later, in a much different tone, he explains a long-distance relationship to his grandfather: "It's called a commuter relationship, Gramps, and it's very annoying."
DiPietro does not oversentimentalize -- no mean feat with one or more Italian-American grandparents on stage much of the time. He maintains the Italian flavor we expect (the cheek-pinching, the constant "You look hungry") without making it seem stereotypical. The script is filled with truly funny anecdotes from the grandparents' past and current lives. So often, older actors seem to be thrown into the scenario as cantankerous door mats, people for the other actors to pat on the head as they rush by. Or there's the serenely senile granny who sits in a corner rocking and sewing and occasionally doling out cookie-cutter wisdom to a clueless young person in crisis. Such is not the case with these refreshingly fully developed roles. These are not just any grandparents but Nick's grandparents, specific people with their own idiosyncrasies.
A talented and experienced troupe, the cast brings out the relationships among the four grandparents as well as the balance between the grandparents and Nick. The man-to-man talks Nick has with each grandfather, for example, help to modulate the stage activity from funny to relatively serious while enhancing the characters' individuality. The drama also has several freeze-frame moments when the action stops and one character delivers a monologue -- an excellent vehicle for Nick's dry, sarcastic humor. John D'Aquino's way of striking an almost catatonic pose, setting his jaw, and staring off at some fixed point in space is hilarious when juxtaposed with the foursome of enthusiastic, well-meaning, but annoying elders fluttering around him. In a show like this, the goal is not to go all the way over the top, and Nick's character is the anchor that keeps the play from becoming Italian slapstick. D'Aquino's deadpan responses and barely restrained anger allow the drama to move forward when it could have gotten stuck in a mire of lasagne, genuflection, neighborhood gossip, and tales of old Italy.
The character of Caitlin contributes to the balance between old and young but also provides a fresh perspective on family, age, and tolerance. Caitlin is much more open to elderly people than Nick is. When the grandparents bring up the fact that Nick chewed on his rattle as a baby and announce that he is seeing a "head doctor," she smiles and says that she too goes to therapy. She rejects Nick's invitation to dinner because she doesn't like his impatience with his grandparents. Then, having walked off stage, she comes back to add, "I want you to know that's probably the most mature thing I've ever said." Caitlin's self-effacing, slightly gawky humor is endearing in a strong performance by Lara MacGregor.
The last 20 minutes of the play contain a succession of monologues in which Nick reveals what decision he made and what happened to each of his grandparents. This is the only acting that seems unnatural, and the material, obviously crammed into the script for last-minute plot resolution, has an "OK, let's wrap this up" tone. An example is Nick's revelation that if he had known his grandfather Nunzio was dying of cancer (a fact that Nunzio chose to keep from him), he wouldn't have left. This seems unrealistic after what we have learned about Nick's character.
What we glean from Over the River and Through the Woods is largely what we already know about the generation gap: It's not a gap -- it's the Grand Canyon. Young people and their grandparents are worlds apart, especially as technology leaps forward. In addition the United States is so big that, as Nick says, "you can move 2000 miles from your family and still be in the same country." The play, to its credit, doesn't offer a formula for bridging this gap. Each character accepts his or her differences while growing in respect for the others.
With its funny dialogue, poignant monologues, and strong cast, this production is definitely entertaining, a crowd pleaser that gets the audience laughing and crying. Nevertheless it does not capitalize on the benefits of its genre, the stage play, much less stretch its limits. Contemporary drama must do that to be considered exceptional. Over the River and Through the Woods is touching but not too disturbing, heading straight to the heart and pretty much bypassing the brain. It could easily translate into a Hollywood production. It could have been a special episode of Who's the Boss? or a movie like the recent romantic comedy Return to Me. One leaves the theater wondering, Why was this a play and not a movie? Theatergoers deserve something other than movielike entertainment, and not only because we're paying at least three times as much for a ticket. The art form of theater is not a derivative of film, and it shouldn't feel that way.
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