By Marilyn Jozwik
I was told that there would be laughter and there would be tears during Sunset Playhouse’s presentation of Joe DiPietro’s “Over the River and Through the Woods,” my first viewing of the show.
I didn’t quite get to the tears part – though there were some wonderfully done, emotion-filled scenes – but there was plenty of laughter. In fact, throughout most of the first act, there was a constant array of laughter, ranging from tittering to belly laughs.
The theme of the show is family. Nick (Ben Braun) is the 29-year-old, single grandson of Frank (Scott Kopischke) and Aida (Joan End), as well as Nunzio (Raffaello Frattura) and Emma (Linda Wirth). Nick’s parents have moved to Florida, but Nick still lives in New Jersey and has Sunday dinner with both sets of grandparents every week. Nick is often reminded of the importance of his family. “Tengo familia” his grandparents repeat to him often, impressing upon their grandson his role in the family.
Nick loves his family dearly but is frustrated by their old ways and lack of empathy for his generation. They don’t want to learn how to use the new devices he gives them as gifts, they argue endlessly about minutiae and they fuss over him like mother hens, especially his grandmother Aida, whose first remark when he arrives – or when most anyone arrives, for that matter – is “You look hungry.” She moves in and out of her kitchen, bringing splendid meals and desserts like a short order cook. “That’s their secret – they suck you in with the food,” says Nick.
Food is a big part of the play. And these are some of the most relatable moments. Early on, Aida asks Nick what kind of cheese he wants on his sandwich, “chedda” or “Muensta,” as they say with their New Jersey accents, in a hilarious bit. Next comes the crumb cake that Aida serves as Nick tries to make a big announcement. “This is a one-sentence announcement. You don’t have to cater it,” says Nick. The grandparents make a production of serving the cake and coffee, chattering about who wants what, how good the cake is, and on and on. Nick is becoming more and more frustrated with their habits.
When Nick finally tells them news they don’t like – which seems like a betrayal of family, to them — the grandparents set in motion a whole series of events to try to undo Nick’s plans. Along the way, Nick learns a lot more about his grandparents and their past that gives him an even deeper appreciation of this incredible gift of family.
DiPietro, the playwright, has a gift for comedy, as he also displays in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” There is lots to laugh at in both these shows, with “I Love You” having perhaps a meatier script.
This cast, under the direction of Brian Zelinski, does a fine job with the comedy and capturing the emotional pitches the show attains.
As the tightly-wound Nick, Braun has all the right qualities. In the first act, he is in a near constant state of annoyance as his grandparents’ whirl around on a merry-go-round of small talk, food presentations and petty arguments. He communicates with his hands, his face, his whole body, conveying his emotions. His is a demanding role and Braun is up to the challenge. In Act II, Nick sees a different side of his grandparents, and we see a different side of Nick. Braun plays the transformation beautifully.
Kopischke and End as Frank and Aida are the more subdued set of grandparents, while Raffaello and Wirth as Nunzio and Emma have only one volume to their conversations – loud.
I have loved Joan End in every play I’ve seen her in, most recently in “The Foreigner.” Here, she plays a sort of Edith Bunker character that knows only one mode – maternal. End has such warmth and sweetness about her character that Aida draws you in. She beams at every compliment about her culinary skills and unabashedly shows the joys of service.
As her husband, Frank, Kopischke seems to always be in the center. His emotional stories of leaving his home in Italy when he was 14 are touching and his slightly out-of-touch and myopic view of the world is endearing. Kopischke gives Frank an introspective quality, a thoughtful manner. Nunzio, played by Frattura, is just the opposite. He’s boisterous and demonstrative, and says what he thinks when he thinks it. Nunzio’s wife, Emma, played by Wirth, rivals her husband in tone and passion. These two, as are End and Kopischke, are a perfect pairing.
As Caitlin O’Hare, a family friend, Deanna Strasse brings just the right amount of bemusement as she meets Nick’s warm and expressive Italian family. While Nick is visibly angered at his family’s mealtime conversation, Caitlin is charmed. Strasse’s pleased look is a nice contrast to Nick’s look of exasperation. The two handle wonderfully a pivotal scene in which Caitlin helps Nick learn to appreciate just what he has.
The ensemble cast is first-rate, tackling some of the tricky exchanges expertly. When playing Trivial Pursuit, Nunzio has a hard time coming up with a name and the grandparents go off on a rollicking discussion of “the guy with the ears” and “the woman with the hair” without ever coming up with names. It’s hilarious, with Wirth and Frattura verbally dueling as if in a tennis match.
Nick Korneski’s set of Frank and Aida’s living room is warm and inviting, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off the big picture above the window. It just seemed an odd place to put it. Marty Wallner’s lighting is spot on, highlighting various characters and scenes to home in on the emotions.
You don’t have to be Italian to appreciate the messages delivered so well here, mainly that family matters. But the need to succeed and to reach our potential is important, too, as long as we don’t lose sight of those who formed us. Those values are articulated with humor and emotion in Sunset’s presentation of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” If nothing else, it will make you want to start a tradition of Sunday family dinners.
If you go
Who: Sunset Playhouse
What: “Over the River and Through the Woods”
Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove
When: Through Sept. 24
Tickets: (262) 782-4430; www.sunsetplayhouse.com