‘Over the River’ packs an emotional punch
When my son gets overwhelmed by emotions of any sort, he says, “I’ve got the feels.”
Williamston Theatre’s “Over the River and Through the Woods” has got all sorts of feels for its audience. It’s a show filled with emotion of the most authentic variety, along a whole spectrum of feelings: exasperation, affection, love, loss, laughter, fear, amusement, nostalgia and even hunger.
In fact, whatever emotion you can associate with family, you can probably find it in this show.
It takes place at grandma’s house, as the title implies. Aida Gianelli (Gloria Vivalda) is the wonder-cook who can’t rest unless people are eating, and her house is one that her husband Frank (David Daoust) built for her. Two doors down are the other set of grandparents, Nunzio (Arthur Beer) and Emma Cristano (Mary Bremer Beer). Tying them together every Sunday for dinner is their beloved grandson, Nick Cristano (Andrew Faber).
What director Tony Caselli pulls off particularly well in this show is making sure that all of these larger-than-life characters stay authentic and believable. These people have huge personalities. They fill the room with their laughter, anxiety, love and devotion. At the same time, they aren’t reduced to stereotypes. They are representatives of a generation that first built a new life in this country and who placed family commitments above everything else.
“Over the River and Through the Woods” also works because everyone’s motivations – as conflicting as they are – are sympathetic. Faber convincingly plays a young 20-something who is building a career that makes little sense to his grandparents. He clearly shows his love for his family, even as he is exasperated with them and wanting them to understand his need to build a life that is something more than just family.
Nunzio and Emma are touchingly in love. They have a deep connection that has clearly been built over the years. The audience believes that the Cristanos have been together for 55 years and that they share a brain and memories that are so enmeshed that they need each other to communicate to anyone outside their tight-knit bond. Their efforts at answering Trivial Pursuit questions create a golden moment that is familiar and hilarious to anyone who has ever shared that intense sort of relationship with someone else. Likewise, the story of their meeting and courtship is upstaged only by their reaction to it and how clearly they show that they are still affected by it.
Daoust is heartbreaking when he talks about his youth and how he ended up in America. He exhibits a reserve that makes the pay-off even bigger when he gets to the gut punch. But “reserve” does not characterize Daoust’s Frank in general. Like the others, he is full of life and unwilling to accept any restrictions that advancing age might try to put on him.
Vivalda is delightful as the woman who is convinced that everyone is always hungry and knows that any problem can be solved with the right Italian recipe.
In contrast to these larger-than-life characters who constantly speak over each other and have an intense connection with each other, Carolyn Conover’s role as Caitlin O’Hara, the woman brought in to entice Nick to not move away to Seattle, is easily overwhelmed. Some of that is a script that creates her as a foil, and a device to give Nick a different perspective on his grandparents. But in general her energy levels and commitment do not match that of the others on stage, though she portrays a young woman who is both cute and sweet.
“Over the River and Through the Woods” is a show that is a generous serving of laughter spiced with tears, longing, sadness and pure delight at all the wonderful things that family can be. It may not talk about the holidays at all, but it has the heart of the holidays. It is about the ways we love each other, grow away from each other and always carry with us the gift of where we came from.