Over the river and through the woods,
To grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh,
Through the white and drifted snow, oh!
“Do you know this song?” asks Nick Cristano, the frustrated protagonist of Joe DiPietro’s widely loved play, sweating profusely in his grandparents’ sweltering Hoboken living room. “They’re actually excited to be going to their grandparents’ house.” The subjects of Lydia Maria Childs’ 1844 ditty aren’t the only ones anxious to get to grandfather’s house. Small theater companies all over the East and South Bay are betting that audiences can’t get enough of DiPietro’s sweet, old-fashioned story of a man with four dotty, scheming grandparents and a difficult choice to make. So on the off-chance that you missed Over the River and Through the Woods last spring when CenterRep did it in Walnut Creek, or when San Leandro’s California Conservatory Theatre offered it for the holiday, or last year in San Jose, fear not. This thing is like a virus: if you don’t catch it in its current incarnation at the Contra Costa Civic Theater, or at Hayward’s Little Theater at the same time, it’ll also be at the Altarena Playhouse in March. This play will spread and spread, until it has infested every smallish theater in the area.
Which raises an inevitable question: Don’t these people call each other when they’re planning a season? Maybe they could get a fleet discount from the people who sell the scripts. Or maybe they could just cast a single set of actors who could go around doing the play at all the different houses. Maybe a group of Over the River groupies will emerge: people who attend every production dressed as their favorite grandparent. It could be the new Rocky Horror Picture Show, with audience members chanting along with grandfather Frank’s “Tengo familia!” and throwing crumb cake and veal instead of rice. Or not.
Cattiness aside, there are good reasons for the popularity of this play — which has been running steadily off-Broadway since it opened in 1998 — especially at a time in which audiences seem drawn to comforting stories. Over the River is very funny and very real. Everyone has a grandparent, or at least knows someone with a grandparent, like the ones who conspire to keep their beloved grandson from moving away to a better job in Seattle by trying to hook him up with a canasta partner’s pretty niece. Over the River also features four delightful older characters, which is great for theater companies with a pool of mature actors from whom to choose. Its messages are audience-friendly: family comes first, long-term love is possible, respect your elders. All of which makes it an excellent show for Contra Costa Civic Theatre, which turns in a solid rendition strong on humor and light on angst.
The secondary theme of loving selfishness gets ample airing here. It runs through Nick’s struggle between pursuing a much-desired promotion and staying close to his family. His grandfather Nunzio, meanwhile, talks about how it would be selfish to reveal the true state of his health to his grandson. And even Caitlin, the young woman invited to dinner to entice Nick to stick around, mentions feeling selfish about her own grandmother. What’s interesting is the notion that expressing one’s needs and truths is somehow wrong. It’s a lot like talking to people who wonder if their desire to put their own lives first and not have children is too selfish. In Over the River as in life, when a character decides not to share a piece of vital information or make a choice based on their sense of what they most need, other characters end up suffering, yet nobody has done anything wrong.
Although the cast is consistent in its timing and energy, the strongest performances belong to Tom Flynn as the jovial Nunzio and Loralee Windsor as the doting housewife Aida. David Stein as Nick has an awkward time of it with the monologues, some of which are a little stilted to begin with. The play makes a sudden, wrenching jump forward in time, and Nick’s description of what happened in the interim feels jerky. Stein does better overall when he’s interacting with the others, playing Nick’s frustration very well.
Director Jerry Johnson probably could have imparted more variety to his characters. Last year’s CenterRep production (with, admittedly, professional actors) featured four very different grandparents and a rather arrogant Nick. The maternal grandparents were solid stay-at-home, traditional people, while the paternal set were swingier, zingier, let’s-take-a-bus-tour folks who loved to dance. In Johnson’s hands, the four grandparents are nearly identical, and as a group they’re a lot softer than the CenterRep batch. It’s as if the actors were instructed to play nice, which is unfortunate because there’s plenty of room in this script for irascible, argumentative, flighty, and hidebound. It’s possible to take these characters farther out without losing their basic lovability, but either the actors or the director have chosen not to take that chance. When Caitlin tells Nick he’s being an asshole to his family, it doesn’t ring as true as it might because his brusque and self-absorbed edges have been sanded to mere petulance and childishness here. That said, Contra Costa Civic’s trip Over the River is as satisfying as any we’re likely to be offered this year — an affectionate and funny play, solidly performed.