Funny and touching 'Over the River' is a nod to grandparents

The Fresno BeeJune 25, 2014 

Caitlin (Erica Riggs) and Nick (Alex Vaux) meet as Nick’s nosy grandparents (Mary Piona, Joyce Anabo, Noel Adams and Gordon Moore) watch in GCP’s "Over the River and Through the Woods."

SPECIAL TO THE BEE

This one's for Grandma and Grandpa.

In lesser hands, the sweetly written "Over the River and Through the Woods" could have hardened by the end of two acts into a sticky, sentimental clump. But not with Dan Pessano at the helm. As director of this little summer gem from Good Company Players — which I highly recommend — Pessano has assembled a terrific quartet of veteran company actors playing two sets of grandparents who dote upon their smothered grandson. Then he has elicited from them wonderfully warm and textured performances that never sputter into the saccharine.

That's a pretty big accomplishment. The set-up of "Over the River," written by Joe DiPietro, already strays big-time into aw-shucks, idealized territory. Nick (a sharp Alex Vaux) is a 27-year-old marketing executive in New York who still treks back to his hometown of Hoboken, N.J., every Sunday to have dinner with all four of his tight-knit Italian-immigrant grandparents. For someone his age to be able to claim four living grandparents is fairly remarkable. To have them live so close together — and get along so well — is even moreso.

When Nick gets a promotion that will take him to Seattle, his grandparents are devastated. They band together and gamely try to keep him in town by setting him up with a blind date (played by an assured Erica Riggs) at their weekly Sunday dinner. Their attempt at match-making provides much of the comedy. But there's more to the play than the amusing meddling-grandparents theme. On a deeper level, this is a story about the ease with which family ties can fray in our culture.

In fact, Nick's unseen parents in the play have already fled New Jersey for Florida — probably as a way to escape the feeling of getting old themselves, one of the grandparents muses. Nick's sister has moved across the country, too, which means that the grandparents rarely get to see their great-grandchild. Nick is all they have left. It's little wonder they fight so hard.

Each of the four gets a chance to shine. Gordon Moore is endearing as Frank, who was sent off to America by himself as a young teen by his Italian father hoping for a better life for his son. (Moore is so good at doing the semi-cranky thing. His character wants to be grumpy but has too nice of a temperament to pull it off.) Mary Piona is wonderful as Aida, Frank's wife, who plays out the fussy Italian grandmother stereotype — the kind who wants to stuff you with food night and day — to the hilt. (Piona also appeared in GCP's 2001 "Over the River" production.) When her character sheds the eternally cheery grandma stereotype, however, and lashes out in hurt and anger at her grandson, it's a memorable scene.

Two more GCP veterans — Joyce Anabo as Emma and Noel Adams as Nunzio — offer a slew of tender, funny moments as well.

Knitting it all together is Pessano's seamless, restrained direction. He understands that sentiment is so much more effective when it's allowed to percolate naturally, rather than slamming the audience with overwrought emotional moments. I like the way "Over the River" creeps up on you as a viewer, shifting from expected clichés to unexpected emotional depth.

Vaux and Riggs hold their own among their older colleagues, though one key scene between them — when she finally gets alone with him after the blind-date dinner — seems oddly flat and could use some more dramatic oomph.

David Pierce's set, Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed's costumes and Haley Yasui's lights all help create a comfy, warm feel. Frank and Aida's "lived-in" house seems so welcoming that you'd want to snag a dinner invitation there, too.

It all adds up to a thoughtful, funny and emotional experience. For those in the audience who have lost their grandparents, the play offers the sweet spot between wrenching and uplifting. And for those lucky enough to not yet have experienced that pain, the admonition is clear — seek them out, wherever they are, and give them a big, tight hug. I wish I could.

THEATER REVIEW

"Over the River and Through the Woods," through Aug. 17, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. www.gcplayers.com, (559) 266-0660. $18, $15 students and seniors.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com or @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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