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[whitespace] 'Over the River and Through the Woods'
Photograph by David Allen

Table Talk: Mark Phillips (second from left) can barely get a word in edgewise as his grandparents and date--George Ward (left), Judy Jean Bearns, Edward Sarafian, Stacy Ross and Linda Hoy--dominate the dinner table.


A dutiful grandson tries to understand the eldest generation in 'Over the River'

By Heather Zimmerman

GROWN CHILDREN butting heads with their parents is certainly a familiar enough theme, but Joe DiPietro's Over the River and Through the Woods explores such routine family upheavals from the somewhat unusual perspective of the eldest generation: grandparents. TheatreWorks presents an excellent production of this insightful comedy that successfully bridges a seemingly insurmountable generation gap.

Single, twentysomething Nick (Mark Phillips), born and raised in Hoboken, N.J., and now a successful marketing executive in Manhattan, has stayed close--at least geographically speaking--to his two sets of Italian-American grandparents, who still live in the same Hoboken neighborhood they have lived in their whole lives.

Nick dutifully attends Sunday dinners with his four grandparents but is often obviously aggravated by their old-fashioned ways. When Nick receives an important promotion that requires a move to Seattle, his apparent defection from his family spurs his four grandparents to try to persuade him to stay.

Director Robert Kelley has perfectly honed, almost choreographed, each scene to the point that it really does feel like we're voyeurs at a family gathering. DiPietro adds some occasional narration, in which the characters, usually Nick, speak to the audience. These scenes don't always work as well, perhaps simply because breaking the fourth wall can seem at odds with the intense realism of the other scenes.

The casting alone, however, offers reason enough to see this show. Nick could easily seem just plain arrogant, but in Phillips' hands, we can sense how truly conflicted he feels.

As Nick's breezy, on-the-go paternal grandparents--otherwise known as the "loud" ones--Emma and Nunzio, Judy Jean Berns and Edward Sarafian demonstrate a mutual devotion that genuinely seems to have spanned 55 years. Nick's maternal grandparents, content homebodies Frank and Aida (George Ward and Linda Hoy) function as the domestic center of the play.

Ward's stubborn Frank makes a good foil for Hoy's, motherly Aida. In fact, I almost think I should recuse myself from reviewing Over the River because Hoy's Aida so strongly resembles my own mother's mother, and almost getting to have Grandma back--even just a facsimile of her--probably didn't do wonders for my objectivity.

But eliciting such a response seems part of DiPietro's goal in this play. He celebrates the older generations that often sacrificed much hoping to secure happiness for future generations of their families--like Frank, whose father sent him away from Italy at 14, hoping he could have a better life in the United States.

DiPietro suggests that for these generations, sometimes achieving the American Dream could turn into a case of "be careful what you wish for" as their children and, more so, their children's children adopt lifestyles and ideologies that seem worlds apart from their own. Grandparents often seem icons of unconditional love--and sometimes stifling disapproval--but DiPietro aims to show us the individuals behind the "job," as it were, demonstrating there's more to our grandparents' stories than just tales from once upon a time.

Over the River and Through the Woods plays Tuesday at 7:30pm (except Aug. 14), Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm (plus Aug. 4 and 11 at 2pm), Sunday at 2pm (except Aug. 12), plus Aug. 5 and 12 at 7pm through Aug. 19. at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto. Tickets are $22-$40. (650.903.6000)

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From the July 26-August 1, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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