The Ties That Bind

by Michael Bowen

It's indestructible. The Italian-American comedy Over the River and Through the Woods (on the Civic's Main Stage through Jan. 31) is an ironclad crowd-pleaser. Preaching the value of the ties that bind -- tenga famiglia -- as humorously as it does, Joe DiPietro's script is going to be produced in American theaters for the next couple of generations. Because it deals with our anxieties about love, scattered families, career decisions and guilty little pleasures, this play speaks to an overscheduled Cell Phone Nation.

The plot: An ambitious twentysomething middle manager in New Jersey is both blessed and cursed to have all four of his grandparents still alive and feisty. He startles them with the announcement that he's planning to move all the way across the country for a job opportunity; they scheme to make him stay. Much discussion of the power of familial love ensues. You laugh, you cry, there's a heartwarming conclusion and we're all reminded to call Grandma more often.

But that's not to slight DiPietro's play, which carefully mixes the seriousness with the comedy. Director Juan A Mas, in fact, has expertly guided a solid ensemble through all the tonal changes required. The half-dozen actors here exemplify the many of the virtues necessary in knitting together a family over the generations.

Love: Scarlett Hepworth's Emma commissions Catholic Masses for her grandson and fusses over him perpetually. Embracing her husband of half a century, she says, "This is the reason I want you married, Nicky." Hepworth's delivery exemplifies simple devotion.

Bravery: As Nunzio, the paternal grandfather with the white socks, J.P. O'Shaughnessy demonstrates strength in concealing a secret it would be selfish of him to reveal.

Generosity: Kathie Doyle-Lipe avoids stereotyping Aida, the grandma who solves every problem with food. By offering advice to her grandson with simple sincerity, she creates a more rounded character.

Forgiveness and open-mindedness: Homer Mason's character, Frank, used to be angry at his family for forcing him to emigrate from Italy. Now he sees it in another light, and eagerness as a student of the mandolin demonstrates that this old coot ain't dead just yet.

Kindness and tact: Caitlin (Wonder Russell), as the possible love interest for the grandson, gets thrust into a family that makes a lot of assumptions. Russell shows us how considerate Caitlin is -- but she also demonstrates the aggressiveness under the thoughtful exterior.

Meanwhile, Mas and his chief actor -- Paul Villabrille in the central part of Nick the grandson -- are taking the lead in making Over the River an entertaining, gut-provoking show.

The frenzy of excitement when Nick first appears for his weekly visit is all rendered quite naturalistically, and that's due to Mas's direction. Later on, a previously restrained Villabrille goes on a rant about the demands of a new job market and the over-protectiveness of his elderly forebears, who sit looking on rigidly.

Lately Villabrille has been acting in just about every other show at the Civic. The central part of Nick, in its size and range, makes some big demands: exasperation over his stubborn grandparents, anguish over being set up, mania during a temper tantrum, lump-in-the-throat sentimentality over everything his grandparents did for him. Villabrille answers the challenge with his best acting yet.

Cynics will say Over the River will be performed a lot simply because it's middlebrow. But a reminder that love means letting go isn't necessarily trite. It's cheap sentiment if a playwright suggests that loving one's children involves setting them free -- and just leaves it at that. But it's not cheap to say that you have to be willing to make sacrifices for the ones we love -- not when the grandparents in DiPietro's play reminisce in ways that make us feel in our bones how deep their sacrifices were.

The play also avoids sentimentality because the playwright lived this tale. Like Nick, DiPietro once was torn between moving across the continent for one job or staying in New York for another. His maternal grandparents, Ida and Ralph DiPietro, were married for 55 years. When the other grandmother died in 1997, just a year before her grandson's play opened Off-Broadway, it marked the end of a 68-year marriage.

It's good that DiPietro is so capable of depicting love and family life and the quirks of one's in-laws and the dating scene, because Spokane is having a sort of minor DiPietro retrospective this month: I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change opens Jan. 22 at CenterStage, and it's a musical that confronts the same themes.

Mas, meanwhile, provides a lovely final image: Aida and Nicky, in dual spotlights, with her preparing yet again to offer him some food. But her gesture becomes, by the end, not the annoying habit of a woman who deals with every family crisis by asking if anybody's hungry. It becomes, instead, an offering of enduring life and love.

Tenga famiglia means much more than merely having or even supporting a family; mangiamo means more than just "Let's eat." The effect of Over the River and Through the Woods is to encourage us to savor life, to be thankful for our loved ones and for the time we have shared with them, well-spent. Godiamo la vita, the play's grandparents seem to say. Let's enjoy life.

Publication date: 1/15/04