Family, Faith…and Food!

By Scott Clark

Over the River and Through the Woods, Lincoln Community Playhouse, Friday October 20, 2023

Over the River and Through the Woods is an intimate family drama from Joe Dipietro, currently playing for two weeks on the Lincoln Community Playhouse’s main stage. Dipietro’s name may be familiar to longtime theatre fans – he’s been involved at one level or another with 24 stage plays and musicals since his first show, Love Lemmings, premiered in 1991. His first big hit was I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (co-created with Jimmy Roberts), which played for over 5000 performances over 12 years Off-Broadway. He won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical and Best Score for Memphis in 2010. And he won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical in 2012 for Nice Work if You Can Get It. Among his other credits are the Elvis jukebox musical All Shook Up, The Last Romance, Living on Love, Clever Little Lies, What’s New Pussycat? (featuring the music of Tom Jones), The Toxic Avenger and Diana, a musical about the tragic life of Princess Diana.

Over the River and through the Woods is actually one of his earliest plays. It first premiered at the Belmont Italian American Playhouse in NYC in 1994, before being workshopped at various other venues. It ended up Off-Broadway at the John Houseman Theatre, where it played for 800 performances from 1998 to 2000. The play was officially published and made available for community theaters in 1998. One thread common to most of Dipietro’s works is heavy doses of character-based comedy, leavened with some emotional plots. And that sums up this play perfectly.

Nick Cristano (Shaw Riggs – new to the LCP stage) is a rising marketing executive in New York City, nearing 30, and nervous about sharing the news of a job promotion with his grandparents. The reason? His promotion will force him to move from the New Jersey/New York area where he’s spent his entire life, out to Seattle, WA. Nick’s parents have previously moved to Florida, and his sister moved to San Diego, but he’s remained behind and continued to meet with both pairs of his Italian-American grandparents for Sunday dinners. When Nick breaks the news to Frank and Aida Gianelli (Bruce Hahn and Margaret Minary), and Nunzio and Emma Cristano (John Burney and Rosalie Duffy), they can’t believe that he’s abandoning family and tradition in favor of his career. Their plotting to come up with a reason to convince Nick not to move away involves setting him up with Caitlin O’Hare (Rachel Stage – another newcomer to LCP), the eligible young daughter of one of Emma’s canasta partners.

That’s the plot in a nutshell…and it all takes place in Frank and Aida’s home, over the course of several family Sunday dinners as well as an extended stay Nick has in the Gianelli home following a health scare. There’s not a lot that isn’t predictable in the plot of Over the River and Through the Woods, but that isn’t a weakness…it’s actually the play’s greatest strength.

The four grandparents could be considered somewhat stereotypical, but that’s what makes them completely relatable and sympathetic. Everyone in the audience should be able to recognize people from their own lives among these characters. Aida’s “go to” solution for any problem is to apply food to it. Frank’s increasing difficulties with driving – and his stubborn refusal to give it up, reminded me of the terrors of riding in my own paternal grandfather’s car when he had reached the point that he should have surrendered his driver’s license. Nunzio is facing a health crisis, but is bothered more by his own internal arguments over whether he should share that news with his grandson and unwittingly influence Nick’s plans. And the almost psychic connection between Nunzio and Emma, during a hilarious game of Trivial Pursuit, made me fondly think of the conversations I would overhear between my own grandparents over the years, in which their verbal shorthand was evidence of a lifetime of being with each other.

The chemistry in this cast is amazing. The Gianellis and Cristanos felt like a real family. The easy, comfortable familiarity of their banter and loving arguments came across as heartfelt and realistic – it is obvious that this group of actors has bonded and worked hard to accomplish this level of emotional truth. Equally, the chemistry between Caitlin and Nick (and Caitlin and the rest of his relatives) came across very naturally as well.

Audience members of differing ages may come into this play hoping for differing outcomes. Those of an older generation may be rooting for Nick’s grandparents’ schemes to be successful and for him to choose to stay. Those closer in age to Nick and Caitlin may be hoping that Nick is able to strike out on his own and finally create his own new life. And those with a strong sense of romance may desire to see Nick and Caitlin make a love connection. But no matter what direction you want all of these characters’ lives to go…you’re likely to see either yourself or your own family relationships reflected in this loving yet argumentative clan.

The performances by all six actors are nuanced and impactful. Shaw Riggs as Nick makes a powerful debut on the Lincoln Community Playhouse stage, and serves as an emotional core for the play. Rachel Stage makes a huge impression in the scenes she’s in, particularly when she opens her heart to the possibilities Nick embodies. Each of the four more “senior” actors have their moments to shine, with either an emotional scene of reminiscence or a humorous anecdote. There are no weak links here. Though there is a lot of humor in this play, there are also moments of intense feeling. My favorite scene in the play comes close to the end when Nunzio and grandson Nick step onto the porch, ostensibly for Nunzio to share his news of his health problems, only to have it go another direction, that had me holding my breath. I’ll admit that my own eyes were tearing up at this and several other key moments – and I could hear sniffles from nearby fellow audience members. But Dipietro is savvy enough to have such moments quickly balanced by wacky, relatable humor.

On a technical level, everything about this production is top notch – the set feels lived in and makes very effective use of every square inch of space, and is decorated in ways that had me thinking about both of my own grandparents’ homes. Pacing was snappy, particularly in scenes of overlapping dialog. The musical choices before the show and at intermission really set the tone for the play. And I’d like to offer special kudos to the production’s lighting designers, Mackenzie Krull and Camden Wallingford – throughout the play, there are moments when the action stops and a single character is highlighted with a pinpoint spotlight to break the fourth wall and offer a comment to us in the audience. These were all done with tremendous success.

All in all, fans of both comedies and family dramas will find something to enjoy in Over the River and Through the Woods, and I challenge any attendee to not be thinking of their relationships with their own loving grandparents as you leave the theater. Highly recommended!

If you go: The Lincoln Community Playhouse is located at 2500 S. 56th St. in Lincoln, NE. Remaining performance dates for Over the River and Through the Woods are October 21-22 and 27-29. Performances on Fridays and Saturdays are at 7:30 p.m., and matinee performances on Sundays are at 2:00 p.m. Get your tickets now on www.lincolnplayhouse.com or by calling the box office at (402) 489-7529 during open hours.

Scott Clark has worked in a variety of roles for the Lincoln City Libraries for nearly 45 years, where he regularly shares book, music and film reviews on their readers advisory website, BookGuide. He’s also reviewed books for the Lincoln Journal Star, and both KFOR and KZUM radio, and has shared his reviews of films and stage shows on his personal blog and Facebook feeds for many years. He’s a reader, writer, actor, and theatre nerd, who loves to share his enthusiasms, in an effort to connect people with things they just might fall in love with!

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