The Generation Trap
Over the River and Through the Woods (written by Joe DiPietro and directed by Kenneth Kay) is one of those plays 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 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 onstage.
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 the 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 he has been awarded a promotion requiring him to move to Seattle and 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 and stay put. 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. Its focal point is an overstuffed couch with an afghan thrown across it, and we also see the Catholic icons: statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus with his Sacred Heart and 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 confer some versatility and allow for private dialogues.
Nick must confront the deeply held belief that, because family is the most important thing (the Italian credo "Tengo famiglia" sounds throughout the script), all decisions should be made accordingly. But he's a modern man. It is obvious to Nick that success does not lie in marrying young, 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 eighteen. 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 onstage much of the time. He manages to maintain the Italian flavor we expect (the cheek-pinching, the constant "You look hungry," the "When are you going to get married?") without making it seem stereotypical. The script is filled with truly funny anecdotes from the grandparents' past and current lives. These are not just any grandparents; these are Nick's grandparents, specific people with their own idiosyncrasies.
The cast, a talented and highly experienced troupe, brings out the relationships among the four grandparents as well as the balance among the grandparents and Nick. The man-to-man talks that Nick has with each grandfather, for example, help to modulate the stage activity from funny to relatively serious while enhancing the characters' individualities. The drama also has several freeze-frame moments when the action stops and one character delivers a monologue. These prove to be excellent vehicles 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 straight face, deadpan responses, and barely restrained anger allow the drama to move forward when it could have gotten stuck in a mire of lasagna, 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 admits 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 charming in a strong performance by Lara MacGregor. Although her actual stage time is significantly less than the other actors', her part rounds out the cast. Caitlin may be young and pretty and smart, but the most compelling aspect of her role is that she seems very real.
So often an older actor seems to be thrown into the scenario as a sort of cantankerous door mat, someone 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 some cookie-cutter wisdom to a clueless young person in crisis. This is not the case with this quartet of grandparents, whose roles are refreshingly fully developed. In particular they give us passion over age 60: These folks appear to be more sexually active than their 29-year-old grandson.
The last twenty minutes of the play contain a succession of monologues in which Nick reveals what decision he made about Seattle and what happened to each of his grandparents. Only here does the acting seem unnatural, and the material, obviously crammed into the script for last-minute plot-resolution, has an "Okay, 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 canned and 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. Lucky for the younger generation, the United States is big; in Nick's opinion, in fact, "the best thing about being American is that you can move 2000 miles from your family and still be in the same country." What is somewhat new and interesting is that the play 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. And that is something contemporary drama must do 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 to a Hollywood production. It could have been a special episode of the television series Who's the Boss? or a movie like the recent Minnie Driver/David Duchovny comedy Return to Me. One leaves the theater wondering, Why was this a play and not a movie? Contemporary theatergoers expect 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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