By Marcy Stamper
Over the River and Through the Woods. The title recalls the warmth of a visit to grandmother’s house evoked by the popular Thanksgiving poem. But for people who have spent their entire lives rooted in one place, those ordinary geographic features can loom as an unbridgeable gulf and a reminder of the vastness of this continent.
Joe DiPietro’s comedic drama Over the River and Through the Woods, opening this weekend at The Merc Playhouse, weaves together both ideas. Set in New Jersey in the 1980s, the play tells the story of Nick, a 30-year-old marketing executive, the third generation in his family born and raised in Hoboken, a small, closely knit city of immigrants across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
Nick is devoted to his grandparents, whom he joins every Sunday for dinner, particularly since his parents and sister have moved away. The enveloping (sometimes too close of an envelope) comfort of that world is threatened when Nick is offered a desirable promotion in Seattle. While Nick is conflicted about the move, his grandparents feel abandoned by the mere suggestion that he would consider leaving. They devise a scheme, involving the niece of one of the grandmother’s canasta partners, to entice him to stay.
Although built around the values and culture of an Italian family — their foods, religion and traditions — the themes in the play are universal, said director Laurelle Walsh. “It will really hit home for a lot of people, who will recognize that feeling of ‘Darn it — I love these people, but I can’t stand to be around them.’”
While the premise is timeless, the play takes place in an era before Skype and smartphones, when constant communication and mobility were not taken for granted. These are people who see shipping a tray of lasagna across the country as less daunting than making the trip themselves.
The dialogue is quick and funny and, as it bridges the generations, sometimes absurd. But it is also poignant and bittersweet, as the characters grapple with aging, illness and loneliness.
“Part of the reason the play is funny is because it’s a dysfunctional family,” said Walsh. “Especially in this case, because of the generation gap.”
A refrain in the play, tengo famiglia — literally, “I have family” — has a deeper meaning, embodying the pride and rewards of being able to support and care for one’s family, said Walsh.
Over the River is the directorial debut of a fully-staged play for Walsh, who has acted in several plays at the Merc, performed various backstage roles, and directed readers theater.
The cast brings considerable acting experience. The roles of the four grandparents — Marc Holm, Jane Pappidas, Donald McLane and Robin Wheeler — are played by veterans of Methow Valley stages, both at the Merc and in Methow Valley Theater productions. Julie Tate-Libby, as the young woman the grandparents hope will persuade Nick to stick around, acted in high school. But it’s the first stage role for Ray Sanders as Nick. The actors all imbue their characters with humor and humanity.
“Directing is a different kind of art,” said Walsh. “You’re creating a thing that is multi-dimensional and that has people in it.”
The stage manager and prop and costume crew handle a complicated series of Sunday dinners, lots of comings and goings, and fast costume changes, said Walsh.
Over the River opens Friday (March 7) and runs through March 23 at the Merc Playhouse in Twisp. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for those under 18. There is a pay-what-you-can performance on Thursday, March 13.