Elgin Theatre Company’s production of “Over the River and Through the Woods” is a delightful, poignant human comedy. Under the skillful and sensitive direction of Richard Pahl, it’s a captivator.
Written by playwright Joe DiPietro in 1998, it played for 800 performances off Broadway. There’s a simple and logical reason – it’s a heartfelt and heartwarming tribute to loving grandparents, and in this case, two sets of Italian-American New Jersey-based grandparents. It also relies on the universal themes of the importance of family and an adult coming of age or time to leave the proverbial nest story.
“Over the River and Through the Woods” is a sincerely identifiable story. Nick, a 29-year-old up-and-coming New York marketing executive, visits his grandparents every week for a traditional feast, also known as Sunday dinner.
Aida is the “Einstein in the kitchen” (from cannoli to ravioli) married to mandolin-playing Frank. Two doors down are Emma and Nunzio, their passionate counterparts. All four grandparents are guided and maintain Old and New World customs who live by the three F’s: family, faith and food.
One day, Nick rocks their world by announcing that he has received a promotion and will be moving to Seattle – as in the state of Washington.
And thus the heartbroken but wily four try to provide a reason for Nick to stay, and their first attempt is a blind setup: one Caitlin O’Hare, the unmarried niece of Emma’s partner.
The Elgin Theatre Company cast is committed and charismatic – all seasoned, talented, believable performers. Tom Ochociniski as Frank is strong and blustery. His monologue about his father the fisherman, as well as his manhood mantra, “Tenga familia,” not only are memorable, but they set the path of the play. Frank is married to Aida, sweetly and subtly played by Linda Sak, the conveyor of love from the kitchen.
Rick Johnson is an incredibly solid and honest Nunzio. Arlene Arnone is Emma, Nunzio’s wife. Arnone is quirky, energetic and adorable. Yet here the casting is somewhat confusing; there is an obvious age disparity. I believe she’s been married for 60 years, but not to Johnson’s Nunzio. He could pass for her eldest son. And another minor quibble with those marvelous grandparents: Why don’t any of the four have traces of accents? They all were born, raised and came from Italy.
Jess Smith is a heartbreaker as the prospective love interest, Caitlin. I wished there was more of Smith onstage. She’s an expressively deft charmer. But it is Matt Hellyer as conflicted grandson Nick who runs away with the play. He is masterful and incredible in his journey onstage. His delivery at all times is natural and comedic with impeccable timing.
Sign actor Andrew Ross is unobtrusively set behind the uncluttered set on a platform. His signing is flawless, and his physical expressiveness is exquisite. He’s not a distraction but fascinating to experience.
The audience is fortunate that DiPietro created such predictable but bitingly funny scenarios and characters. We also are fortunate that Pahl brings to life such personalities, perhaps a little stereotypical, perhaps a little over the top, but so recognizable and so very lovable.
So, go over the river to Elgin ... but a word of caution: Bring Kleenex. There won’t be a dry eye in the house at the end.
• Regina Belt-Daniels continues to happily do what she loves: teach, act, direct and write theater reviews. She is a retired Raue Center for the Arts board member, a lifetime TownSquare Players member, a 2018 Woman of Distinction and a retired Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 special educator. She currently serves on the boards for Right-Center-Left Production Company Theater and It’s Showtime Huntley.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Over the River and Through the Woods” – two acts with an intermission
WHEN: Through Sunday
WHERE: Elgin Theatre Company, Elgin Arts Showcase, eighth floor, 164 Division St., Elgin
COST: $20 for adults, $18 for students and seniors
INFO: 847-741-0532 or firstname.lastname@example.org