Stage: Wednesday, August 8, 2002
Reality Bites

Circle Theatre’s latest promises laughs but delivers tears.


Leaving my seat at the end of Circle Theatre’s production of Over the River and Through the Woods, I overheard a silver-haired gentleman grumble to his gray-coiffed wife, “I thought you said this was going to be a comedy.” She’s not the only one who declared it so: Circle has advertised the show as a G-rated family portrait that’s “loaded with laughter” — which is true for much of the play, as we watch a young man tangle with his loving but stubbornly short-sighted grandparents. The barriers that separate them involve not only age but the differences between a second-generation American and Italian immigrant seniors. The elders are indirectly responsible for this grown-up stranger who used to gnaw his rattle anxiously (and adorably, of course) as a grandbaby. Then, in the second act, playwright Joe DiPietro and Circle’s visiting director Rene Moreno take a sharp turn and drive headlong into a brick wall of harsh reality, turning ticket-buyers’ wistful smiles into so many scattered fatalities.

The tears that left the older patron feeling hoodwinked are testimony to the uncomfortable truths spoken in DiPietro’s face-off between changing attitudes and lifetime convictions, personal fulfillment and family responsibility. The author’s widely produced musical revue about the travails of romance, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change!, is much less claustrophobic and more hopeful but still tinged with the blunt honesty of a dating survivor. Also transported from Theatre Three (as was I Love You), Over the River retains three cast members from the T3 production. Under Moreno, the performances are lucidly delivered by a cast of six actors who boast more than a century of collective stage experience. To phrase that less pompously, this script offers meaty roles to both youthful and seasoned talents.

For the entire 29 years of his life, ambitious marketing exec Nick (Rick Leal) has shared bountiful Sunday meals with both sets of grandparents — his mother’s parents, Aida (Ada Lynn) and Frank (Richard Zavaglia) and, on the paternal side, Emma (Barbara Bierbrier) and Nunzio (Hugh Feagin). He visits with them despite the fact that they drive him up the wall with their loud voices, rambling reminiscences, and intrusive antics. When Nick announces he’s decided to take a job promotion that will move him across the country to Seattle, the horrified quartet schemes to keep him in town by setting him up on a blind date with a young nurse (Heather Child) who’s infinitely more patient than Nick.

On paper, it sounds like the 20-minute plot of a CBS Monday night sitcom. But this show cuts deeper as people begin to feel betrayed, resentful, even despairing. Director Moreno has performed in and directed everything from contemporary multi-media experiments to classical tragedy. Moreno takes the playwright’s unsentimental lead and guides his nimble performers to serve nostalgia and high hopes in sweet but selective tablespoons, which helps produce something impressively close to the conflicted relationships most of us have with our families. Even with all the love that gushes from this dining room, everyone has an agenda. The lead character, Nick, knows what he wants, and is often quite direct in expressing it — the feelings of his listeners be damned. As Nick, Rick Leal is a handsome fellow who smiles quite a bit, but there’s a narcissism and callowness to the performance that nicely matches the elders’ own selfishness. Whether Leal and Moreno intended this or the actor just projected it, the self-involved bravado of his delivery works for the role.

The meddling seniors aren’t wise Shakespearean matchmakers who’ve taken love’s labor upon their stooped shoulders. These four actors are superb at simultaneously aggravating you and touching you with their sincere blindness to different needs and experiences. At one point, after an unexpected medical emergency sends Nick to the hospital, Aida admits in one of the play’s monologues, “I was hoping there was something wrong with Nick. ... Nothing terribly wrong, but bad enough so he’d have to stay.” Ada Lynn, who arguably provides the show with its biggest laughs as the family’s passive-aggressive, food-pushing chef, declares this without comic flourish. Her expression is wide-eyed, unsmiling, and unaware of the slightly scary implications of this kind of desperate love. Such ambivalent moments are scattered throughout Over the River and Through the Woods, and their unsettling clarity more than compensates for the play’s familiar surface. They remind us that little epiphanies can emerge from conventional packages.

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