Theater Review: Artist's Ensemble closes season with 'Over the River and Through the Woods'

Playwright Joe DiPietro takes his own relationship with his Jersey grandparents and creates a charming play centered on the foibles of seniors and the difficulties that arise when their grandson Nick, played by Kevin McKillip, decides to move across the country. McKillip recently played in Goodman Theatre’s The Story, and his appearance here gives Artists’ Ensemble another level of credibility as an equity company.

Rod MacDonald is Frank Gianelli, and Jan Bacino as Aida, gives her gift of love by cooking every classic Italian dish and using food as a solution to all problems. As the parents of Kevin’s mother, Ken Staaf (Nunzio) and Pat Staaf (Emma) arrive each Sunday for dinner. Their marriage of 60 years convinces them that only the right girl will allow their grandson to achieve true happiness.

Kevin’s frustration with the elders results in outbursts that in the first act seem too strident. Lydia Berger as Caitlin is Nana Emma’s idea of the perfect mate. Oblivious to the young people’s embarrassment, the grandparents continue their Sunday dinner.

Act II reveals the life stories of Frank, Aida, Nunzio and Emma. MacDonald’s monologue is a tender revelation of his youth in Italy and the rejection he feels from an uncaring father. Ken’s battle with a terminal illness gives the bluff extrovert a deep sensitivity. With MacDonald playing the mandolin, the joy of dance bridges the generational gap. The entire cast provides us with an evening of humor. The quirks of the aging are easily recognizable… been there, done that. Over the River and Through the Woods brings to mind a journey for a family holiday. The Italian phrase “Tengo Familia” refers to the core of the family, and it is that concept that makes the play so touching.

Richard Raether, AE artistic director, announced the plans for next season. Based at Rockford College, the company will mount Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the holidays Greetings, Nickel & Dimed and On the Verge. Each play will run for three weekends, an extension of the first season. Subscriptions are available by calling 226-4100, the Rockford College box office.

From the May 25-31, 2005, issue

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