There are times when plays seem too close to home. And there are few things in life more painful than those times when we have to leave people and places we love, not because we have stopped loving them, but simply because it is necessary to go.
In Over the River and Through the Woods, we engage the story of one man's leaving of his quirky, delightful, infuriating family. In this case, that family is represented by his two sets of Italian grandparents, with whom he has dinner every Sunday. When a choice job comes up in Seattle, he knows it is time to leave them and set out on his own, but he also knows that real family is never truly left behind. They make a last desperate attempt to hold onto him, by trying to match him with a "nice girl," but in the end they also recognize that his leaving, this ending, is as much a part of life as their own eventual end.
This is a very funny play, impeccably written, and with genuine love and insight for characters who are so distinctive and complete they don't seem like fiction at all.
Director Joan Welch has done a superb job in directing this play. Not only is the comedy fresh and energetic, but it's perfectly controlled, allowing situations, such as a terrific set-piece where the grandparents play Trivial Pursuit, to delight us with their own improbable reality, rather than to be jokey devices contrived for the stage. Equally important, she gives the play's very real emotion both dignity and place, and never beats us over the head with its importance. When we listen to these people, as we listen to a monologue delivered by Grandfather Frank (Ed Cornacchio), it's with the intensity and focus of those rare, unforgettable conversations we sometimes have with loved ones. The times when they speak of things we will never forget, and give us an understanding of themselves that forever changes how we know them. This play is filled with love, both in its comedy and its drama, and Welch has achieved and honored both.
The cast is marvelous. Tim Kniffin creates just the right sense of being the product of these people, with all the pride and embarrassment of that circumstance. Best of all, he's capable of being just as ridiculous, infuriating, inflexible and silly as any of the rest of them, while also being as sympathetic and likable. Perhaps the play's most important requirement, he makes all these people a part of his heart, and shows enough character of his own to deserve them. As his proposed romantic interest, Jenny Ferris is charming and dear, a genuinely nice girl who may not be right for this guy, but who clearly deserves to find the right guy.
The literal heart and soul of this show, however, is the grandparents, and they could not have been more effective. Cornacchio is a remarkable actor. He doesn't have an especially great range, but what he does have is extraordinary authenticity. James Cagney once said all an actor has to do is "stand there and tell the truth," and if that is so, then this is Cornacchio's talent. That takes nothing away from his subtlety and technique, but simply to acknowledge that in the end, we believe him, and that's what makes the final impression.
Ann Russell, on the other hand, is an actress of breathtaking range and technical finesse. As Emma, she is one big, ingratiating smile on the surface, and immeasurable depth and complexity below. She speaks volumes with the smallest gestures, passing glances, moments so precise and perfect they're almost invisible.
Linda Montalvo, given one of the best roles I've seen her do, delivers as rich and filling a performance as any of the endless dishes that come out of her kitchen. The fact that her role is something of a one-joke device is totally overtaken by the way in which she makes that offering so emblematic of the love and nourishment she provides everyone. As her husband, Nunzio, John Oswald seemed a little too broad to me at first, but by the time he has his moment with the grandson, his own identity and importance is clear.
This is a beautiful, marvelously performed piece of theater, an example of the best of the Spokane stage. I said there were times when a play seems a bit too close to home, and that was the case for me, with this show. Like Nick in the play, I am also leaving people I love dearly, with all their quirks and virtues, for a new job opportunity in Seattle. While I am filled with excitement and hope for new experience, I am also overwhelmed by the sadness of leaving, by what it costs to leave all that you love, and by the terrible certainty that there is no choice. We take with us all that we leave; we are all of that which those we love have been to us. We never forget.
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