Encore Michigan

It’s all in the family in ‘Over The River…’ at ESR

Review November 24, 2019 Paula Bradley

PORT HURON, Mich.–Tengo famiglia. This phrase from Italian literally translates to “I have family.”  But in the Italian culture, the meaning goes far beyond simply having a family.  Family is everything.  Enter Stage Right’s current production of Over the River and Through the Woods, a funny and touching play by Joe DiPietro, examines many of the ways we are both constrained and enriched by our families. 

Stephen Kenny directs the cast of six, many of whom have worked together on stage often; the resulting chemistry is evident, creating a story that flows naturally, and relationships that feel genuine. Its characters each have one foot firmly in stereotype territory, although this is easily forgivable when we start to see our real-life relatives embodied in them.

Nick Cristano (Gino Fracassa) is a twenty-something successful marketing up-and-comer.  Since his parents have retired to Florida and his sister moved out of state, Nick is the one left behind to share dinner with his two sets of Italian grandparents.  Frank and Aida Gianelli (Michael Murphy and Bethany Stahl) are the bickering couple who cannot imagine life without each other.  Frank emigrated alone from Italy as a teen, married and built a home for Aida, and made a successful life in America. Nunzio and Emma Cristano (Jeffery Pedue and Lisa Kramp) still hold hands and act like love birds.

Nick loves, yet is exasperated by, his grandparents. Frank is reluctant to give up driving, even after having a series of car accidents; Aida never encounters a situation that can’t be made better by serving delicious food.  Emma cannot refrain from reminding Nick that he should be married already, and Nunzio can’t remember anything without going through a convoluted series of related situations.

When Nick announced to his family that he has been offered a promotion which will require him to move across the country, the grandparents devise a plan to get Nick to stay.  The “bait” is the lovely and unattached Caitlin O’Hare (Leah Gray).  Nick is mortified at being set up by, and then embarrassed by, his grandparents. But Nick is intrigued by Caitlin, and her ultimate influence on him isn’t necessarily what the grandparents intended.

The fact of Nick’s promotion and intended move causes Nick and his grandparents to assess what family means to them. Tengo famiglia causes internal conflict for them. Are we defined by the family we come from? The family we raise?  The career path we choose? The way we respond to life’s stresses?  All of these factors overlap as Nick must decide who he is as an individual, and his family must decide how to react.

As mentioned above, the familiarity and chemistry of this cast creates a harmony on stage that makes the audience members comfortable, perhaps even feel like they have a stake in the outcome of the story.  There are no weak spots in the cast, but a special nod must be given to Jeffery Pedue as Nunzio, who makes a difficult choice in order to help Nick in his self-discovery. Pedue synthesizes the gregarious side and the deeply sentimental side of Nunzio into a man that would make anyone proud to call him Gramps.

An interesting detail that made an impression with this reviewer (whether intended or not) was the presence of a roof truss suspended over the set.  It seemed to symbolize multiple things:  the dedication Frank showed to his famiglia by building the home, and the importance of a safe home and strong family in defining who you are as an individual.  

For a play that ends with such an emotional theme, there are still plenty of laughs to go around, and the humor is appropriate for adolescents on up.  Over the River is playing at The Citadel in Port Huron through November 24, 2019.