Story: In a comfortable, old-fashioned home, Frank Gianelli talks about “tengo famiglia.” That’s Italian for “I support a family,” but Frank says it means even more than that, it means that a man “is doing well for my woman and my children. I have a reason for being alive.”
Nick Cristano is a weekly visitor in the 1990s to that home of his maternal grandparents, Frank and Aida Gianelli, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They also are joined every Sunday by Nick’s paternal grandparents, Nunzio and Emma Cristano.
Nick’s parents have migrated from New Jersey to Florida and his sister now lives in San Diego. This makes Nick’s news even more difficult to tell his grandparents: He’s been offered a promotion to his company’s Seattle location.
It’s hard enough for Nick to get a word in edgewise with the constant chatter in the Gianelli home. When he does deliver the news, it’s not well-received. In fact, his grandparents conspire to give Nick a “reason for being alive” by fixing him up with a blind date named Caitlin O’Hare, an attractive young nurse who is a friend of Emma’s via the grocery store.
Will Nick fall for Caitlin and stick with the family philosophy of ‘family, faith and food’? Or will he take “just a job” in that faraway land known as Seattle in the "other Washington"?
Highlights: Joe DiPietro’s two-act comedy sounds semi-autobiographical, or perhaps he just knows how to write realistic, homespun dialogue. In any event, Over the River and Through the Woods is a charming little comedy, especially when overseen by director John Contini (who notes that he grew up in a very Italian family himself) and acted by a pair of pleasant young performers and a quartet of savvy veterans who make the current Insight Theatre Company presentation an ingratiating evening.
Other Info: Costume designer Laura Hanson has a keen eye for detail, from the high-riding pants worn by Jerry Vogel as Frank to the comfortable shoes favored by Emma (Maggie Ryan) and Nunzio (Tom Murray). Jacob Winslow’s properties keep Aida Gianelli (Tommy Nolan) busy bringing in various plates of food from the unseen kitchen throughout the two acts, her tonic for whatever ails anyone.
The uncredited music design features a medley of standards by Dean Martin, Perry Como and other Italian warblers. Jeff Behm’s lighting highlights Chris Regelsen’s set, which is filled with sturdy chairs, a dining room set and assorted knickknacks that make the house into the Gianelli home, with a welcoming porch at stage right.
While DiPietro’s humor can get a bit tedious after a while, especially in the languid second act, Contini elicits some delightful performances that make this visit to the Gianelli household a pleasant and even familiar one.
Vogel’s Frank is a straightforward type who prefers a day in the living room to any fancy vacation, and he delivers Frank’s poignant story of his own youth to Nick in quietly understated but dignified fashion. As his wife, Nolan is the epitome of a woman who has found happiness by underscoring the happiness of her husband, children and grandchildren. And anyone who declines Aida’s food briberies will end up losing the argument eventually.
Murray brings the halting gait of Nunzio to his portrayal as well as a humorous interpretation of the elderly man’s feistiness and long-held grudges. Ryan completes the senior quartet as the amiable Emma, who’s not above trickery to keep her beloved grandson from migrating west.
Matt Pentecost does well as the loving if exasperated Nick, who finds himself losing his patience and temper when his doting grandparents can’t quiet down long enough to listen to him. Ariel Roukaerts nicely portrays the genial outsider Caitlin, who finds herself more drawn to the loving seniors and is taken aback by what she considers Nick’s brusque behavior.
Over the River and Through the Woods will doubtless strike a familiar chord in anyone who’s been fortunate enough to have been raised by a family that sacrificed to give their children the opportunity for a brighter and better future. That’s “tengo famiglia” at its best.
Play: Over the River and Through the Woods
Company: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall High School, 530 East Lockwood Avenue
Dates: July 16, 17, 18, 19, 20
Tickets: $15-$30; contact 556-1293 or insighttheatrecompany.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb