By Geary Gorup
A critic would be expected to nit-pick a community theater show cast with amateur players, but it is difficult to find fault with the current production at the DCP Theater, Over the River and Through the Woods running this Thursday through Sunday, February 2, 3 and 4. While much of the public’s attention this weekend may be drawn to football, television repeats and under-performing movies on the big screen, you would be hard pressed to find a better way to spend two hours than attending this wonderfully funny and bittersweet production directed by Thomas Rush.
Any good theater starts with a strong script, and my hat goes off to the DCP leadership that chose this poignant story about families and generational gaps written by Joe DiPietro. The opening night attendees who braved a dense fog to arrive at the theater were totally drawn into the laughter and the tears by the playwright’s characters and their individual stories. Anyone who comes from a family that celebrates tradition with holiday gatherings and big dinners will see some of themselves and their own relatives in this show. DiPietro’s script highlights the moments of familial bonding and conflicts, the giving and taking, the frustration and unconditional love, and the encouragement and sacrifices that bring families together and separates loved ones.
Chuck Kane, Barbara McNutt, Teri Maxwell, Brad Briddes, Jan Thompson & Sam Gugino
A nod must also go to the detail and care created in the set designed and built by Emma and Jeff Beckers with the production crew in the single set which welcomes the audience as they settle into their seats. One might expect in a not-for-profit production a barren and darkened set with black backdrops and a few necessary pieces of furniture in a play centered around a family living and dining room. But here the furnishings and detail put into the Gianelli home in this set contribute to making this production look and feel like a real home for real characters.
Undoubtedly, one of the most challenging tasks for any director, particularly one working with an all-adult cast for the first time, is to choose the right players for each part. Here Director Thomas Rush, with Producer (Cathy Zeller), Assistant Director (Michael Romito) and Stage Manager (Shelby Winder) hit a home run. Those of us in the audience really never know how much of an actor’s performance comes from his or her innate individual skills and dedication to a role, or from the gentle prodding of a supportive director, and the truth often lies somewhere between. Whomever deserves the credit here, the result here was a perfect cast who were cast perfectly.
We must start with Brad Briddes, convincingly playing a much younger, long suffering and emotionally insecure grandson (Nick Cristano) who must make a decision about an opportunity to advance his career in Seatle at the cost of leaving his grandparents alone with no other family near their home in New Jersey. Because his own parents and sister have already left the original family hub to live in other states, Nick remains the loyal grandson who comes to the Gugino home each Sunday for dinner with both sets of grandparents. Mr. Biddes’ Nick is both the victim and beneficiary of his grandparents well-meaning, but sometimes over-bearing, love and support, facing his family obligations with a unique mixture of humor, stress and dread.
One of my favorites in the show is Sam Gugino’s performance as Nick’s maternal grandfather, Frank Gianelli. Like other patriarchs of his era Sam immigrated to America with a strong sense of family solidarity from the “old country”, countered by the sacrifices that sometimes must be made by parents and grandparents to allow their children to find themselves, to make their own futures, and to build their own families. Mr. Gugino portrays Frank as a loving husband, often unbending in his own ways and traditions, but still demonstrating self-effacing humor as he faces the limitations forced upon him by his advancing age.
Sam Gugino & Brad Briddes
I found myself drawn to Jan Thompson’s subtle portrayal of Frank’s wife (Aida Gianelli), as the matriarch who has kept the families together over the years with her wonderful Sunday dinners. I could not help but watch Ms. Thompson’s face not only as she delivered her lines with appropriate depth and pathos, but also as she reacted to the lines of the other members of the cast. Her face is the compass by which we journey through the internal emotions that family cannot say aloud to one another – a beautiful performance.
Another joy of this production is Barbara McNutt as the paternal grandmother (Emma Cristano), who concocts the hair-brained scheme to encourage her 35-year-old grandson, Nick, to turn down the promotion in Seattle by ambushing him at a weekly family dinner with a blind date. Barbara is delightful as she shamelessly plots to get her grandson and the daughter of a friend romantically involved and proudly boasts of her success despite the obvious flaws in her plan.
Barbara McNutt, Brad Briddes & Jan Thompson
The only grandparent with the secret that could stop Nick from leaving for Seattle, and to stay with them in New Jersey, is the paternal grandfather, Nunzio Cristano, played delightfully by Chuck Kane. Those of us who have seen Mr. Kane in his recent comic roles in the DCP Theater were pleasantly surprised at his nuanced performance as Nunzio which combines both humor and tragic elements. He may have the funniest moment in the play as he struggles to answer a question in a game of Trivial Pursuit, and he may have the most heart-rending moment as he confesses his secret and his personal conflicts privately in his journal. Be ready to laugh – be ready to cry.
Brad Briddes, Jan Thompson, Barbara McNutt, & Chuck Kane
Finally, DiPietro thankfully gave the blind date, Caitlin O’Hare, as portrayed lovingly by Teri Maxwell, both a strong backstory and a strong personality. O’Hare could have easily been presented as a throw-away character who comes to the dinner, suffers with Nick as the victim of a set-up blind date, and leaves. Instead, Ms. Maxwell as O’Hare shows she is her own woman, with an appreciation and respect for the grandparents that Nick fails to express. Ultimately, it is O’Hare who forces Nick to grow up and to recognize his own short-comings as he makes his career decision.
Brad Briddes & Teri Maxwell
While in many respects this is a play that baby-boomers will view with nostalgia, it also will appeal to younger generations that face the challenges of staying in, or leaving, the family home in a modern mobile lifestyle and economy. The play is relatable to all of us who have faced decisions that can tear us between our original family and the new family we create; who have the desires to take on new opportunities and to make our own way in the world; and who will later reflect upon the consequences of those decisions for ourselves and our loved ones.
Do yourself a favor this weekend – skip the reruns on TV – remember that the Super Bowl is still a week away – and assure yourself that you’ll enjoy the DCP production more than any movies you’ll find at the multiplex this weekend. Performances will be this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2:00 PM.
All photographs courtesy of DCP's 2024 season media sponsor, Stephen Gordon Studios