Tengo familgia! In English it doesn’t translate to anything more than “support your family” but in Italian it means so much more. Prince George’s Little Theatre is proud to present Over the River and Through the Woods, a heartwarming comic story of love and family. All of the important life lessons come to us from the most important people in life, and this production reminds us of that. Directed by Frank Pasqualino, this touching tale has something that everyone can relate to— even if you aren’t Italian, even if you didn’t grow up in an enormous family. There is a true family feel to the production, the acting is divine and really drives the message home to everyone in the audience, regardless of your nationality or how many first cousins you have.
Set in 1998 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the Gianelli home lives up to the stereotypical expectation of an Italian family home compliments of the show’s Director, Frank Pasqualino, who also serves as the show’s Set Designer. The furnishings are comfortable but modest and there are crosses and Catholic religious paraphernalia tastefully donning the walls. The warm orangeish yellow wall tones, offset by the bright pea-olive green kitchen, practically radiate heat creating that sweltering atmosphere that Nick so often describes.
Pasqualino’s vision for the family is actualized with the talented cast he recruits into the production. Putting on the Italian-by-way-of-Jersey accents is no small feat, even more so to execute it in a fashion that doesn’t sound contrived or melodramatic and the cast succeeds greatly in this endeavor. A further successful achievement from those cast as the grandparents is their ability to be consistently loud and boisterous in their generic conversations; an homage to the Italian way of life. While some might find this approach obnoxious, it was fitted perfectly into the story and gave the characters even more robust character.
The momentary outsider, Caitlin O’Hare (Elizabeth Heir) held her own a performance filled with loud commotion-driven characters. Heir played the quiet and polite Irish girl come to dinner as a ploy to keep Nick in town. While Heir’s appearance throughout the show is brief she makes her moments memorable with her genuine approach to her dialogue with Nick and her overall mild mannerisms; a perfect foil to the ceaseless noise coming from inside the Gianelli home.
The four grandparents are truly character; pieces of fine Italian woodwork honed into memorable representations of everyone’s grandparents while still having the zesty Italian flare to their personas. The kinship they share is easily spotted; bright and brilliant, radiating love and compassion toward one another. The quartet creates moments of burbling commotion when they all start discussing (and often complaining) to each other all at once, talking over each other and shouting loudly to be heard. It is these little moments of verbal action that really drive home their family ties, grounding the performance in their passionate lifestyle.
Nunzio (John Shackelford) is perhaps the quietest of the four, if such a word could be used to describe them. Shackelford has animated eyes and uses this to make his stories entertaining. His particular lament about senior bus trips is highly amusing, especially when he starts adding flailing gestures to highlight the details. There is a more somber side to Shackelford’s portrayal, however, a story and a series of feelings that really swell the tears to your eyes.
His marriage to Emma (Millie Ferrara) is quite the unusual union as Ferrara makes it clear from the start that her character wears the pants in the partnership. Ferrara is a powder keg ready to crack at any moment, a pistol of a person that really plays her character to the epitome of over-the-top. As the queen meddler, Ferrara wrangles a great deal of laughter from the audience when her plots— that she never even attempts to disguise— are unveiled. The give-and-take relationship Ferrara creates with Shackelford adds further comic moments to the production, each knowing the other as if they really had been married all fifty of those years.
Frank (Ken Kienas) and Aida (Lois DeVincent) are of a similar nature in their relationship, each complaining at the other, fighting for who is right in any given situations, both thinking that they are. Kienas is a kindly character that has a great deal to complain about, his complaining only outdone by DeVincent’s character. The love they share not only between each other but for their grandson Nick (Brian McDermott) is truly inspiring. Kienas and DeVincent have a sharp understanding of comic timing, popping in at just the right moment to deliver a line or a joke, and reacting in kind when the other does so. Their portrayals are both sagely and entertaining; teaching us that there is perhaps just a little bit more to life than just food.
Brian McDermott serves as the show’s narrating force. While still in the play with the grandparents, McDermott’s character is often addressing the audience with little asides or full soliloquies. His accent is stronger when he’s in-scene with his grandparents; just like anyone who has moved away from their family and goes back for a visit. But it’s his relationship with them— growing and evolving as the show progresses to its bittersweet conclusion— that is worthy of praise. McDermott can be just as loud as the rest of them, especially when he’s unable to get a word in edgewise, and finds the more subtle mellow moments to thrive in as well. A great performance, our Italian translator as it were, giving us a chance to experience life the way it was meant to be; with great food (and a lot of it) and a loving family.
So ask yourself, can you ever truly put a price on someone’s love and devotion? How much would you pay to spend time with your family? Seeing the PGLT production of Over the River and Through the Woods might help you answer those questions.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.
Over the River and Through the Woods plays through January 25, 2014 at Prince George’s Little Theatre performing at The Bowie Playhouse—White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets please call the box office at (410) 415-3513 or purchase them online.