I suspect your sympathies in “Over the River and Through the Woods” will be distributed according to age, at least in Act 1.
If you’re under 40, you’re likely to feel Nick Cristano (Brandon James) ought to take the promotion that would land him a marketing position in Seattle: He’s 29, single, ambitious and ready to leave the region he’s occupied all his life.
If you’re over 60, you’re likelier to agree with his clinging but fond grandparents: If nothing there calls to him but work and he already has a good job, why flee New Jersey and four people who think only of your welfare?
Yet in Act 2, when the seeds of seriousness that were planted earlier bear fruit, you’ll be empathizing with both sides in this unexpectedly complicated play by Joe DiPietro.
When we meet the grandparents, the play sets up like a sitcom. Aida Gianelli (Polly Adkins) solves every problem with food; her husband, Frank (James K. Flynn), can’t deal with an answering machine because voices keep coming out of it. (The play was written in 1994 and still seems to be set then.)
Nunzio Cristano (Gerald Colbert) has a habit of getting lost in the past. His wife, Emma (Annette Gill), believes a spouse and children are the apex of life, possibly because she happily stopped there. They find Nick a potential girlfriend in bright, mature Caitlin O’Hare (Caroline Renfro), hoping an attraction will slow his departure.
Now the show deepens. She’s too bright and mature for the conflicted, irritable Nick, especially if he’s leaving the area. One character begins a battle with cancer. And all realize no solution will satisfy everyone or smooth over feelings of betrayal. Perhaps the potential loss of Nick means the oldsters will walk toward death with no one from a younger generation to support them.
The acting is good enough that only someone who grew up around Italians in New Jersey may mind that these people don’t sound Italian or seem to come from New Jersey. (Gill gets closest, with Renfro and James behind her.) They do have Garden State cadences down, and director Carey Kugler has urged them to speak at the right rapid speed: These folks don’t always wait for someone to finish a sentence because they’re sure what the other person will say.
The older actors play above their real ages, delineating characters with small, touching details: Colbert’s stiff-backed walk, Gill’s anxious glances, Adkins’ inability to hear (metaphorically speaking) what’s really being said. Flynn, shorn of his beard for the first time in memory, depicts a man who has started to lose control over his life and clings firmly to the basic values he learned long ago.
On Saturday night, James was too big at first for Pease Auditorium: He spoke so loudly I thought we were meant to assume his grandparents were deaf. Yet he settled into the character, taking on more shadings as Nick stopped being so upset and defensive. We eventually realized how much Nick loved this frustrating foursome, even if – contrary to the old Roman saying – love doesn’t conquer all.