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Over the River and Through the Woods at The Halle Is a Masterpiece of Ensemble Acting

When was the last time you were at a show that included a moment at which the entire audience reacted to a line with an emphatic “oooooo!”? No, we won’t spoil it by pointing out the line, but we do want to urge you to come on down to the Halle Cultural Arts Center of Apex for Joe DiPietro’s Over the River and Through the Woods. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself participating in the communal “ooooo!”

The premise for the show is as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4: (1) It is 1986, and a 29-year-old single Italian-American man has been having Sunday dinner with all four of his Hoboken, New Jersey grandparents every week for years now. (2) His job has offered him a promotion that involves moving to Seattle. (3) It is Thursday evening, and he has dropped in to share the news. (4) The grandparents are not pleased, and they formulate a strategy to keep him home. After all: Tengo famiglia! (Don’t worry, that expression concerning the importance of family will be explained (and demonstrated).

Under Kathleen Rudolph’s direction, this show is a masterpiece of ensemble acting. The comic timing is tight. The chemistry between the characters is real. Scenes flow effortlessly from one focus to another. (Note: DiPietro’s script makes use of soliloquies, and these are transitioned to-and-from seamlessly.)

Jonathan King plays Nick Christano with an incredible level of passion. We could feel his attachment to his grandparents as well as the frustrations that arose from dealing with their idiosyncrasies. And King’s Nick is visibly affected by the intimate interactions that he has with his grandparents in Act Two. Will he move? Or won’t he? Ambivalence is hard to play; King succeeds, in spades.

The grandparents are loveable — there’s no other way to say that. They are also funny. Chris Brown is a hoot as Frank Gianelli, Nick’s maternal grandfather. Cool delivery of comic lines is always one of Brown’s specialties. Our glimpse into Frank’s past (in Act Two) is touching without getting overly sentimental. And just how important is a man’s car?

As Aida Gianelli, Dee Penven-Crew delivers a solid performance, offering food to everyone at every opportunity. We easily discern that Aida’s commitment to “The Three F’s” — family, faith, and food — is unwavering. And it is a credit to Penven-Crew that the line “Thank God, no one was killed” gets such hearty laughter.

Larry Evans brings subtle nuances to the paternal grandfather, Nunzio Christano. Like Frank Gianelli, Nunzio is an immigrant who worked his way up from nothing, building a life for himself and his family. He might not know what a VCR is, and an answering machine might be a mystery to him, but he has a knack for arriving at correct answers while playing Trivial Pursuit. And: can he ever tell a story! Nunzio has a secret that could change everything. Evans gives us a clear perspective on the character’s choice concerning that secret.

Emma Christano (played by Jenny Anglum) thinks that a “mass card” is the answer to everything. Deeply concerned about her grandson’s intention to relocate, Emma brings in a secret weapon: her “canasta partner’s unmarried niece.” Pay close attention, and you will see the “light bulb” above Anglum’s head as Emma arrives at her solution to the problem and formulates her plan.

The chemistry between both sets of spouses is touching (as well as amusing). They might have their disagreements and spats, but they care for each other, deeply. We smiled warmly at the scene that led up to Nunzio and Emma dancing, and we grinned as they exited that scene…. You will, too.

Caitlin O’Hare, the bait in the trap set by the grandparents, is this play’s hardest role to make memorable; but Rebecca Leonard makes doing so look easy. Nick will refer to the ensuing dinner as a “blind set-up.” He might have a problem with it, but Caitlin takes it in stride. We had no problem dissecting the multiple layers of reaction that Leonard’s Caitlin had to her encounters with Nick and his family. Leonard makes sure that Caitlin’s ultimate decisions are totally in character.

Thomas Mauney’s set was spot-on for an apartment occupied by these people in the 1980s. Likewise for Jenny Mitchell’s costume choices — everything was period-appropriate and character-specific. (One of us still has a shirt like one of the ones worn by Nick in a later scene.)

We were especially impressed by the smoothness with which the lighting cross-faded for the spotlighted scenes. Our hats are off to designer Barry Jaked (and to the light-board operator) — transitions like these can be tricky, and botching even one can cause a serious distraction!

From The Department of Picky-Picky: The venue does not provide adequate masking for action in the wings. We were sitting house-left, and we experienced multiple minor distractions as characters in the stage-left wing prepared for entrances. Our suggestion: if possible, choose a seat in the center or house-right.

On a positive note: While DoPP occasionally whines about sound effects, we were impressed with how well the doorbell worked.

Joe DiPietro’s script includes an exploration of the importance of family and of the individual’s responsibility to family and to self. It is appropriately subtitled “A Story of Love, Laughter, and Lasagna!” The opening-night audience loved it, and so did we.

A previously withheld fact: there are actually two points at which Friday night’s audience was provoked to a collective “ooooo.” AND: One of our operatives has revealed that Saturday night’s performance elicited the same response. Come on down and share!

The Halle Cultural Arts Center presents OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS at 3 p.m. March 5 at 237 N. Salem St., Apex, North Carolina 27502.

TICKETS: $15 ($10 seniors).

BOX OFFICE: 919-249-1120 or http://www.etix.com/.

SHOW: http://thehalle.org/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=205 and https://www.facebook.com/events/1231429876983635/.

PRESENTER/VENUE: https://www.apexnc.org/454/Halle-Cultural-Arts-Center, https://www.facebook.com/thehalleofApex, and https://twitter.com/thehalle.

DIRECTIONS/MAP: https://www.google.com/maps/place/237+N+Salem+St,+Apex,+NC+27502/@35.7327117,-78.8505327,780m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x27a931b0efc64614!6m1!1e1″>https://www.google.com/maps/.

OTHER LINKS:

Over the River and Through the Woods (1998 Off-Broadway comedy): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=2863 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.) and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/247 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: http://taproottheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/Study%20Guides/2008%20Study%20Guides/OTRStudentGuide.pdf (Taproot Theatre of Seattle, WA).

Joe DiPietro (Teaneck, NJ-born playwright and lyricist): http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/3137 (Internet Off-Broadway Database) and https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/joe-dipietro-383115 (Internet Broadway Database).

Kathleen Rudolph (director): http://www.abouttheartists.com/artists/499335-kathleen-rudolph (AboutTheArtists bio).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.