Over the River and Through the Woods

Hale Center Theater Orem is a small, intimate venue reminiscent of many Off-Broadway theaters in Manhattan. The shows they do, though, are usually the furthest thing from the New York mentality, focused more on pleasing crowds with broad-stroked comedies and familiar musicals than on presenting exciting new material (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

“Over the River and Through the Woods,” recently an Off-Broadway success, is an utterly charming example of how the theater can branch out while still maintaining its primary goals.

The play, about a young man dealing with his two sets of overbearing grandparents, is witty and poignant, and addresses issues of family relationships with a satisfying, old-fashioned point of view.

At the same time, its Off-Broadway roots are obvious in its whip-smart dialogue, intelligent characters and everyone’s tendency to stop the action and speak directly to the audience now and then (a staple of “serious” theater).

Nick Cristano (Ryan Radebaugh) is a 27-year-old marketing executive whose only close relatives, geographically speaking, are his four grandparents. He has dinner with all of them every Sunday at the Hoboken, N.J., home of his maternal grandparents, Frank (Eric Bjarnson) and Aida (Karen Baird). Frank is an Italian immigrant who’s been running into things with his car lately, and Aida is a typical Mom to whom everyone always looks hungry. Their house is perpetually hot (but not just “hot,” Nick says; “August in Ethiopia hot”), because they won’t run the air-conditioning.

The other grandparents are Nunzio (William Bisson; double-cast with Richard G. Wilkins) and Emma (Melany M. Wilkins) — “the loudest people I’ve ever met,” Nick tells us. The four old-timers love to eat and talk, debating at which grocery store a certain pointless anecdote took place, or employing extremely circular deduction skills to remember who starred in “High Noon.”

One Sunday, Nick announces he’s been offered a promotion that would take him to Seattle. His grandparents are devastated, especially the Old-World Frank, for whom “tengo famiglia” (“keep the family,” literally, but much more than that in Italian) is a rallying cry.

To keep Nick from moving, Emma invites Caitlin (Katie Purdie), the relative of a canasta partner, over to dinner one week, hoping she and Nick will fall in love. The encounter is a disaster (none of the grandparents can comprehend the concept of “vegetarianism”), and the plan backfires. Now, more than ever, Nick is convinced he needs to move far away from this insane, overly loving group of senior citizens. Then he has a panic attack and is forced to spend several days at the house, where he really gets to know his grandparents.

In a typical Hale Center play, the plan would work, Nick and Caitlin would fall in love, and he wouldn’t move away. Also, the dinner scene would be the centerpiece of the show, full of farce and outrageousness and possibly with a man dressed as a woman.

“Over the River and Through the Woods” clings to realism without leaving behind sheer entertainment. The dialogue is eminently quotable. (“I want to see you married before I die,” Emma tells Nick. He replies, “Let me know when you think you’re going, and I’ll see who I can dig up.”) The acting is superlative all around, bringing these vivid and lovable characters to life in what will probably be one of the best shows of the year.

As suggested in the review, this was a perfect of example of what the Hale Center Theater can do. It's a family-friendly play, which is one of their goals. But it's also smart, funny, and doesn't pander to the audience, which is often not the case there. Kudos to Joe DiPietro for writing such a warm, witty play, and to Hale Center for doing it.