Long Island has one of the largest Italian-American populations in the country and, while North Fork Community Theatre’s current production of “Over the River and Through the Woods” speaks right to Italian-Americans, the subject matter is relatable to just about anyone.
The story, set in New Jersey in the 1970s, centers on Nick, who has accepted a coveted promotion that requires a move across the country. This will take him out of the orbit of both his maternal and paternal Italian grandparents — Frank and Aida, Emma and Nunzio — who plot together to find a way to keep him close to home.
The heart of the play is expressed when Frank, an immigrant, tells us about his childhood. Hating his father for the poor life he provided and then putting him on a boat to the U.S. alone at the age of 14, Frank ultimately realizes his father gave him everything. “Tengo famiglia,” he says, is more than its literal translation; it means family is more important than anything.
And so, this is how the grandparents’ generation has lived their lives. Nick’s parents moved south for the sun and the grandparents do not understand this changing world. Nick is their only grandson and they’re not about to let him out of their grasp so easily.
Each Sunday, Nick joins the four grandparents at Frank and Aida’s house for the traditional family dinner. It’s Emma’s idea that, since Nick is unmarried, he has nothing to stay in New Jersey for, so she invites Caitlin, a “nice girl,” to dinner as a setup. The big surprise for Nick is that he actually likes Caitlin. Does he move? Does he end up with Caitlin? You may be surprised.
Bill Kitzerow plays Nick (while also doing double duty as assistant director) and you can feel the love he has for his grandparents and the internal struggle he is dealing with at the prospect of leaving them.
Susan Hedges does a fine job as Caitlin, the young woman placed in the awkward position of being Nick’s surprise blind date. You believe her when she says she truly likes the grandparents and you understand her initial decision to reject Nick’s offer of a date.
Rick Peters gives a solid performance as Frank. He has some great moments during which he tugs on our heartstrings, calling back some of my own personal memories of growing up in Italy in a big family. An Italian accent is not one of the easiest to tackle, but he pulled it off well for the most part.
Marguerite Volonts was adorable as Aida, the Nonna you remember who thought food was the answer to every question. She brought a sweet, meek flavor to an otherwise strong-willed woman. There is a nice chemistry between her and Mr. Peters, as there is between Manning Dandridge and Susan Vojcik, who play Nunzio and Emma.
This couple bickers constantly, but their true and deep love for each other is, nevertheless, made clear to us by Mr. Dandridge and Ms. Vojcik in subtle ways.
Director John Hudson and producer Deanna Andes were fortunate to find a cast of actors who each seemed to connect with both their characters and the material, providing a realistic portrayal of this particular kind of family life.
The pacing could have been picked up a bit, especially during some monologues. Sometimes dramatic pauses might feel right on stage, but in the audience, they can feel longer than necessary and undermine a heartfelt, truthful delivery. Also, it’s good to remember that seeing a character fighting back tears is often more powerful than watching him cry. But for the most part, this is a well-built production that works nicely to bring us back to another time in our lives or to give us a glimpse into another world, depending on our own particular background.
David and Charlie Scheer created a seamless lighting execution and Ms. Andes’ costume design helped set the 1970s feel. Since real food was used in each scene — and there was a lot — kudos to Tom Del Prete as set dresser/props master.
There is one more weekend to bring your own family to catch this sweet comedy. And remember: Tengo famiglia!
‘Over the River and Through the Woods’
North Fork Community Theatre
12700 Old Sound Ave., Mattituck
Performances continue March 26 to 28 at 8 p.m. and March 29 at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, visit nfct.com or call 298-6328.