Friday, January 19, 2018
Stage

Cast, crew, script combine for superb 'Over the River' at Stage West

You know, I almost regret having to give the comedy Over the River and Through the Woods a rave review.

Not because the play doesn't deserve it. Indeed, it deserves raves and a lot more.

It's just that the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill, where the dramady is playing through Sunday, Feb. 19, has a limited number of seats, most of which are already sold. And once people start hearing how enjoyable and well-rendered this play is, thanks to Joe DiPietro's marvelous script and director Sandy Penwarden's top-notch cast and crew, all those seats will be gone. And everyone else will be left regretting they didn't buy a ticket sooner. Oh, well.

River/Woods is set in 1994 Hoboken. But the story of family ties versus career ambition resonates as much today as it did then. In it, 29-year-old marketing whiz Nick (Christian Braz) has been offered a big promotion at his company, but it entails moving from his home in New Jersey across the country to Seattle. The problem is that it also means he'll be leaving behind two sets of loving grandparents, Frank and Aida (Ernie Rowland and Betsy Glasson) and Nunzio and Emma (Gary Kopitzke and Barbara Santoro), whose weekly highlight is Nick's attendance at their bountiful Sunday dinner.

To convince him to stay nearby, the grandparents plot to provide Nick with a reason not to move. Marriage has been the anchor of the grandparents' lives, and work has been merely a way to provide food and shelter for their families, so they plot to get Nick married to a nice Catholic girl, believing that will distract him from his career ambitions and keep him close to them.

The irony is that the grandparents have worked and sacrificed all their lives so their children and their children's children could have material things that they themselves didn't have, not realizing that would mean sea changes in their offsprings' emphasis on what's important in life. To Nick's parents, it's meant moving to warm Florida. To his sister, it was a move to San Diego. To Nick, it means marriage takes a back seat to career achievement. The grandparents are perplexed by both their children and, now, their grandchildren.

"Who moves for better weather?" Aida wonders. And who would move across the country for a better job and leave all family behind, they all wonder. After all, "Tango familia," Franks roars, an Italian phrase that loosely translates to "family means everything."

Both ideas may be familiar to many in the Stage West audience, a great many of them Florida transplants from the cold North and most of them grandparents themselves.

The plot could be chick-flick cutesy. But thanks to playwright DiPietro, it isn't. Sure, there are many good laugh lines. But the thoughtful script and the structure of the play, with the characters coming to the front of the stage to ponder situations, reveal their feelings or reminisce about their pasts, similar to expository paragraphs in a book, make it much more satisfying.

Stage West regulars will not be surprised at stellar performances from HAMI winners Rowland and Glasson, their most recent as leads in the drama On Golden Pond. Rowland's gruff Grandpa Frank, who emigrated from Italy at 14 and still has his thick Italian accent, makes a powerful impression. Glasson, as his adoring wife, Aida, is darling as the quintessential tiny little grandmother, scurrying around in her kitchen, where she is master of the stove top and oven.

Kopitzke and Santoro are both experienced players, but these are their first lead roles at Stage West, and they are both simply wonderful. Kopitzke's Grandpa Nunzio is loud, but, oh, so adorable, selfless and sweet that you just want to give him a big bear hug. Santoro's Grandma Emma is wise, a little cheeky, but tough in an appealing way. These two have stage chemistry, and it is a delight to watch and listen to them.

Braz was a tad tentative on opening night, but grew more confident as the show progressed and ended on an emotional high note. His Nick is just right as the object of his grandparents' affection — exasperated and annoyed by them at first, but completely believable as he grows to understand and appreciate what they offer him.

He is prodded in that direction by Caitlin (Savannah Smith), the girl Grandma Emma chose for him, who chastises Nick for his rude treatment of his grandparents and prompts him to see them in another light. Smith was a last-minute addition to the cast, stepping in to play Caitlin after the original cast member left. She is sweetly appealing as Caitlin, but could use some coaching in projecting her voice so her best lines are clearly heard. She has all the right moves, and that's a good start.

Kudos to David Stenger, whose set and light design are spot-on, and to light operators Nicole Moore and Theresa Stenger (also operator of Lynda Dilts-Benson's excellent sound design), who touched the correct buttons at the precise moments necessary to provide authenticity. Eileen Bernard's costumes are true to character (except for the puzzling "B" on Grandpa Frank's silk pajamas — and would thrifty gramps even buy silk pajamas?).

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