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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Over the River and Through the Woods

TheatreWorks is currently presenting the delightful 1998 Off Broadway hit Over the River and Through the Woods, by Joe DiPietro. This play will be produced by every regional theater company in America as a hit. It's funny, heartwarming, a little sad and it's full of zingers. Joe DiPietro is being described as the Italian Neil Simon and some of the lines are hilarious.

TheatreWorks has assembled the best cast of veteran stage actors that you are likely to see in any production around the Bay Area. Everyone was perfectly chosen for their roles. Staging by artistic director Robert Kelley could not be better. The show has already been extended to August 25th to accommodate the demand for seats.

The plot of Over the River and Through the Woods is something like an Italian sitcom with broad-stroked characterizations of Italian grandparents as narrated by Nick. This 27 year old grandson is a marketing executive in Manhattan whose only close relatives in the area are the four grandparents (Nick's mother and father have fled to Florida to escape "old age"). Nick has dinner with the maternal grandparents every Sunday in Hoboken, New Jersey. Grandfather Frank immigrated to the United States when he was 14 years old. His motto is "tengo famiglia," "keep the family" and this means much more than it says in Italian. Grandfather Frank firmly believes in the three F's; family, faith and food. Aida, Frank's wife, has a motto too. "Mangia! Mangia!", which is "Eat! Eat!." Everything centers around tiramisu, gnocchi, veal and the table for her. To Grandmother Aida,everyone is hungry when they enter her house.

On this particular Sunday the grandparents receive a shock. Nick announces that he's received a promotion and he has to move to Seattle. That means no more Sunday dinners with their grandson since "he will be out of the country". The four grandparents try to argue, coax, cajole and lay on guilt to prevent Nick from moving across the country. They are a conniving group so the next Sunday they invite a nice, young unattached nurse over for dinner in hopes that the both will become romantically entwined, preventing Nick from going to Seattle. I won't tell what happens.

While there are many one liners like this in this production, there are also some wonderful scenes to savor. One is when Aida, who is joyfully clueless, presses veal on the vegetarian nurse at the second dinner. No one seems to know what a vegetarian is, and this is really milked for all it's worth.

The paternal grandparents are Nunzio and Emma, whom Nick describes to the audience as "the loudest people I've ever met". These two are always debating certain pointless anecdotes and where the debated events took place.

The first act is really over the top characterizations of an Italian family. Act two does overcome the sitcom sensibility when one of the grandfathers, Frank, gets serious and tell his grandson about the father he hated. There are also some very poignant moments between Nunzio and Nick in this act.

Linda Hoy is marvelous as the cooking grandma, Aida, ceaselessly pushing vast quantities of pasta and veal on everyone. She effortlessly presents an everyday warmth in her presentation. Once again, she proves to be one of our best actresses in the Bay Area.

Edward Sarafian and Judy Jean Berns, as Nick's maternal grandparents, are exceptional in their performances. Mr. Sarafian is one of the funniest actors around, and his portrayal of the loud grandfather is superb.

George Ward as Frank gives a superlative performance as the grandfather who believes in "tengo famiglia". Again this veteran actor is one of our most beloved entertainers on the San Francisco regional stage.

Mark Phillips as Nick is one of the most prolific actors in the Bay Area. His New York accent is perfect. He is superior as the self-defeating man looking just a little lost most of the time. Stacy Ross plays the slightly desperate single nurse who is enchantingly direct and forthright in her intentions with Nick; another great presentation by a great actress.

The set by Andrea Bechert is perfect. It is an Italian grandparents' home with objects crammed everywhere. With dark wood, flocked wallpaper and thick drapes, it is the perfect stereotype of an old Italian home. Ardith Ann Gray's costumes add great color and touches of humor to each character. Robert Kelley, TheatreWorks director, has staged this play very quickly but he is able to deliver on every punch line. This production really moved along rapidly.

Over the River runs through August 25 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Tickets are $20 - $40. Call (650) 903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.com . TheatreWorks' next production will be Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, opening on August 29th at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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