AD Players presents a family comedy examining the conflict between career and personal life. "Over the River & Through the Woods" by playwright Joe DiPietro might change how you look at family guilt and what you choose to do with your life. Do we live life in our own pursuits or mindlessly devote ourselves to what our family deems most valuable?
DiPietro most famous stage credit is "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change", he wrote the book and lyrics. This musical has been playing Off Broadway for almost 12 years about another familiar family setting, that of marriage. "Over the River & Through the Woods" dips into the issue of marriage, although this is simply a commentary on the dynamics of family. At times, it feels as if from a completely different generation, devoid of any current reality. Lines come across as cheesy and corny, rather than sincere and genuine. This play seems to present life in a black and white manner rather than all the true grey areas. As if the pursuit of a career means you fail to truly love your family and makes you ungrateful.
The play tells the story of Nick (Marty Blair) a 29-year-old native of New Jersey who is offered the job of his dreams, but there are two problems. First, it's in Seattle and second, taking the job would mean leaving his family behind. Nick is in an unfortunate scenario where his parents have moved to Florida and his sister has moved to San Diego and got married. He is now the only family member left to visit and be near his two set of grandparents. He sees them at the very least, once a week for Sunday dinners. Aida (Patty Tuel Bailey) is the homemaker and grandmother that is a true Italian-American, always whipping something up in the kitchen. Her husband, Frank (Marion Arthur Kirby) has been known to have little accidents and throughout the play he is encouraged to stop driving. Emma (Marcy Bannor) and Nunzio (Ted Doolittle) are the other jovial “louder” set of grandparents. Together, they are the only remaining family in New Jersey.
On an unusual Thursday evening visit, Nick surprises them with a visit and an announcement. Once Nick delivers the news that he was offered a promotion and it would mean moving across the country to Seattle, his grandparents quickly conspire to "give him a reason" to stay. The dynamics of grandparents and grandson is reminiscent of a lovely ideal, though rather unrealistic feeling. In all their talk about family, when their own son and daughter in law call from Florida they merely want to “talk fast” so that they don’t spend too much money. It seems the only way to appear a family is if you live a few blocks or a train ride away.
The cast does the best with the script they are given. Blair, as Nick, is a relatable character and expresses the struggle in deciding between family and career. Audiences can understand and relate to his struggle and back and forth of moving across the country or being near family. He is endearing, engaging and pulls in the audience with his sharp wit and pleasant demeanor. Although each set of grandparents have both their appeal and draw back, each actor truly brings their character to life. Aida (Bailey) is a loveable, though at time overbearing, grandmother. She is tender, sweet and shares her love of the kitchen with everyone. Bannor as Emma is the classic model of an older woman, meddling and nosey. Bannor gives energy to the stage, and is the most lively and loud spoken of the bunch. Kirby as Frank is a hard shell with a soft center. Kirby pulls on all heartstrings as he goes from tough, strong to Act 2 as a tender, reminiscent figure. Doolittle as Nunzio seems to be the only grandparent figure that really has it figured out. He is soft spoken and although might at first be overlooked, really is at the heart of this play. He seems to offer a voice of reason in the mix of all the chaos and overbearing ideals.
At times, each character is given a momentary pause to address the audience directly sharing a key moment, emotion or explaining an upcoming scenario. These might be tender or comic in tone depending who is delivering the line. Although this moments might appear to give the audience greater insight into the actions and motives of the characters, they seem to happen so frequent over time they come off as a bit awkward and even rushed.
Overall, Nick is presented a bit unfairly as a bit overbearing and insensitive through different scenes. The "love" interest Nan brings, Caitlin (Katharine Hatcher), even seems to serve as a reminder of how ungrateful a grandson he is. Although she doesn't know him, she judges him and lectures him on how he should act towards his grandparents after only one single dinner and meeting with him. Hatcher is a thoughtful actress and although audiences might be drawn with by her pleasant stage presence, overall her character feels a bit domineering.
This is a play about family although at time idealized and unrealistic. By the end, the characters seem to mellow a bit and if nothing else realize family is family, no matter what coast or where in the world you are. Love travels with you and you don't need your family always right beside you to show love. Family will always be family and by letting someone live, their life doesn't mean they love you less or vice versa. By allowing someone to choose, it proves that you truly love them. The cast redeems this rather perfectionistic play, and you find yourself pulled in through the actors telling the story rather than the story itself. The cast is commendable for breathing life into this rather draining, idealistic play on what is acceptable for family dynamics as opposed to coming into reality where the "Leave it to Beaver" family just doesn't quite exist.
"Over the River & Through the Woods" plays now through June 29. For ticket information, visit the site at www.adplayers.org, call 713-526-2721 or get them at the box office located at 2710 W. Alabama, Houston, TX 77098. Be sure to see what the Main Stage and Children's Theater has coming up for next season. Season tickets are currently available, so ask how you can get yours now.