Thursday, November 28, 2002

Famiglia, familiarity: Humor, poignancy, and flavor at the Good Theater

Published in the Portland Phoenix

On Thanksgiving weekend, if you haven’t yet had your fill of family interaction around the dining room table, check out Over the River and Through the Woods, put on by Good Theater at the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center atop Munjoy Hill.

In this loving and amusing Joe DiPietro play about family, faith, and food, a thirtysomething man, Nick (played by Paul Drinan), has had Sunday dinner with both sets of his grandparents every week for his whole life. The family dynamic is solid and established, and was acted strongly enough to make me react right along with Nick, in the way my grandparents would empathize with his elders.

After some trouble getting a word in edgewise around his grandparents’ direct mind-to-mouth conversation, Nick gets to make his “big announcement”: He has been offered a job promotion that would require him to move across the country.

His grandparents (Stephen Underwood and Cathy Counts, and married-couple-playing-married-couple Chris Horton and Tootie Van Reenen) latch onto Nick’s comment that he has “no reason to stay,” and take it upon themselves to give him one. Her name is Caitlin (Jeanne Handy), and she arrives at Sunday dinner one day, surprising Nick and delighting his grandparents.

Despite the embarrassment of being set up on a blind date by his grandparents, Nick sees that Caitlin is a great woman. She is interested, too, but is reluctant to get too close before Nick makes his choice.

Nick has a hard decision to make, between his family and himself, and the feelings of love, guilt, and loyalty that are woven into the fabric of the family tug strongly at his heart.

Still, his grandparents remain loyal and loving, offering insight into their own youthful loves and passions, and delivering the script’s timeless truths about family in funny and poignant moments. They remind Nick that their priority is the Italian phrase “tengo famiglia” — “I support my family” — with connotations of family as a reason for being and a purpose in life.

This sentiment is a perfect lead-in to the holiday season, though the play is technically set in mid-summer. The script, strong and well written, evokes the familial sense of holiday gatherings on its own, but the circumstances of this particular production strengthen those ties.

Last year, the play was Good Theater’s very first production. And this year, with the entire cast back for a second run, they work together in the practiced way of family members, who know each other so well as to have an innate sense of dramatic timing. They convey the feeling I have among my own family that while some things on the surface may change, the underlying love, tensions, and interactions will not.

In this year’s production, for example, the table is different. The woman from whom they borrowed last year’s table is hosting Thanksgiving now and needed her own table. It worked out just fine, as director Brian Allen’s grandfather recently moved, requiring Allen to help clean out the house. His grandparents’ table sits on the stage, and many of the details of the set are from his family, too.

Another change this year is that Handy plays Caitlin straight, rather than as a more bumbling comic. Allen noted that it is rare to get to revisit a play after a full run, but he said the cast likes the straight Caitlin better.

Because of those changes, the blocking had to be redone, but was largely successful. Only in the several asides each character has with the audience does blocking become an issue. While high-contrast lights are a great way to show that a speaker is communicating his or her private thoughts, the aim of the spotlights was distracting. The actors ended up partly in the light and partly out of it, making them appear to be less than fully present in the monologue.

The only major fault was that Nick’s solo rendition of “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” was neither stirring nor plausible. A man today singing that to a woman is more likely to get slapped than a kiss on the cheek. If he had started more reluctantly, and Caitlin’s reaction was more guarded, the moment could have intensified as each saw the genuine interest in the other.

Many stage items added pleasant and humorous touches, from the air-conditioner sitting idle in a window — despite Nick’s complaints of excessive heat — to the crocheted afghan on the couch: a warm reminder of grandparents’ love and coziness.

And any play that uses Anthony’s Italian for the food props is worth a smell and a look. It is no wonder Nick’s grandmother looks so pleased every time she puts food on the table.

Over the River and Through the Woods

Written by Joe DiPietro. Directed by Brian P. Allen. With Cathy Counts, Paul Drinan, Jeanne Handy, Chris Horton, Tootie Van Reenen, and Stephen Underwood. Good Theater at St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, through Dec. 1. Call (207) 883-5883.