When the world seems topsy-turvy, and the international economy seems to be teetering, and iconic figures come crashing down in scandal, Midtown Productions’ Over the River and Through the Woods at the Charleston Acting Studio, a light-hearted family comedy, is a sure mood booster. Intergenerational family humor transcends nationality, ethnicity, and time and place.
Aida (Hope Gazes Grayson) is the grandmother who is always trying to feed you. Emma (Linda Esposito) is the grandmother who is always trying to set you up and get you married. Nunzio (Bill Terranova) is the grandfather who has no clue what you do for a living, but thinks you are the best in the world at it. And Frank (Ross Magoulas) is the grandfather who left home at 14 to seek opportunity in a foreign land. Nick Cristano(Thomas Michal), a marketing executive in New Jersey, is a second-generation American of Italian descent, and eats Sunday dinner every week with both sets of grandparents at the Gianellis’ home, where the motto is “Tango Famiglia.”
The play is set in Frank and Aida Gianelli’s red-brick home, which is as inviting and traditional as the Gianellis themselve. The soft décor of soothing blues, yellows, and floral prints is accented by old family photos, knick-knacks, and Johnson Brothers china on the built-in plate shelf, and a telephone niche in the wall. A crocheted afghan is draped over the back of the couch.
Playwright Joe DiPietro may be writing about his own family, but he could be writing about any American family. Nick’s grandparents are sympathetic characters with their quirks and foibles, because they love each other, and they love Nicolas. The Cristanos and Gianellis are warm and nurturing people — OK, sometimes smothering — and Nick loves them just as much, but sometimes he just needs to scream because they drive him crazy with their meddling and they don’t listen to him. Put four Italians in a room, and you have four people talking at once with no one listening, including Nick, who has some big news to share.
Through dialogue and costumes, each of the grandparents is distinctly characterized. Stereotypes are utilized, but the humor is infectious, and the stereotypes are rooted in reality. Terranova and Esposito play the Cristanos as youthful, fun-loving retirees, a contrast to Magoulas’ and Grayson’s quieter, more traditional Gianellis.
Nick is a devoted grandson, whose patience is pushed to the limit, and Michal keeps the atmosphere light as he manages his annoyance toward his grandparents. Director Sheri Grace Wenger maintains the energetic pacing, keeping the timing sharp, and not too rushed. Good casting of experienced actors makes the director’s job easier, and this script could be a mess without an experienced director. A sixth character, Caitlin O’Hare (Andrea Evans), adds a softer touch to the ping-pong style of dialogue, and serves as a possible love interest for Nick, much to grandmother Emma’s delight.
Wenger’s cast strikes the right chord when the comedy is offset by reality and the inevitable difficulties that life presents. Families can drive us nuts, but despite generational gaps and geographical distances, those who care about us carry us through the difficult times.