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Theater Review: ‘Over the River and Through the Woods’

This year the Essex Theatre Company has chosen a heartbreakingly, heartfelt story of a multigenerational family attempting to maneuver change, as part of its summer lineup. Directed by Kathryn Poppino from the book by Joe DiPietro, “Over the River and Through the Woods” is touted as a comedy, but is still a poignant production highlighting a generational divide. The immigrant elders feel family is pivotal and work is something that just provides income while the younger generation searches for fulfillment from their job and is distant from the familial connection.

My daughter joined me for an evening performance of “Over the River and Through the Woods” and we both walked away with something different. She was enthralled watching the story of grandparents hoping their grandson wouldn’t take a job that would move him across the country to Seattle, wondering why the grandparents just didn’t move themselves. I stood in the shoes of the grandparents and could see myself faced with a similar dilemma when in a few years my children may have to relocate and choose employment over family.

Nick Cristano (played by David Tisdale) is an unlikable character in the beginning where he complains about his weekly Sunday dinners with both sets of doting, overbearing grandparents in a house that is kept “August in Ethiopia hot.” There are a few Italian-American stereotypes to overcome, one most notably with Aida Gianelli’s (played by Anne Marie Holzhauer in the first five shows) constant feeding (or overfeeding) of an unappreciative, childish Nick. Holzhauer plays the lines admirably, bringing laughs from the audience. Poppino manages to direct strong performances from her ensemble cast including Vince Higgins as Frank Gianelli and Kevin Cooper as Nunzio Cristano while playing Emma Cristano, Nick’s meddlesome paternal grandmother.

Caitlin O’Hare (played by Barbara Madsen) is Nick’s blind date set up by his grandparents in hopes to keep him settled and in the area. Nick is embarrassed of his grandparents hovering, but its O’Hare who calls Nick out on his horrible behavior and wonders “how many grown adults actually get to have dinner with all four of their grandparents.”

Though many scenes are played out beautifully with witty dialogue, one of our favorites was the Trivial Pursuit game where all four bantering grandparents solve the game piece question’s answer with vague, obscure references, like ” the guy with the ears.” That is also the turning point where Nick starts to mature and appreciate all the love and care that surrounds him.

After Nick breaks the news that he is taking his dream job, the grandparents decide to put his needs first and not to hold him back. Later on consequences make Nick reevaluate his choices.

If you’re in Essex, catching a performance of the Essex Theatre Company’s performance of “Over the River and Through the Woods” is a pleasant diversion, and a wonderful opportunity to reflect on family roles while supporting community theatre. There is mild language, but otherwise I’d recommend this production for mature 11-year-olds through adults.