Here’s a secret for you… there are a LOT of theaters in the Kansas City area. Sure, you hear that all the time but you can never figure out where they are and what’s playing when. That’s the reason I took over KC Stage. Last night I had the opportunity to attend Over the River & Through the Woods at the Chestnut Fine Arts Center in Olathe. I had heard of it, but I never seemed to know when things were playing. When I saw it on KC Stage, I thought now would be a great time to go.
The theater is nestled near downtown Olathe not far from the Johnson County courthouse. The first thing I noticed was this was a different type of theater. It’s very homey. Brad Zimmerman, the owner and producer, actually greets people while opening the door. Not that you know who he is as he graciously welcomes you. It’s a nice personal touch. The reason the space is homey is that it actually IS home for Zimmerman. He lives in the living quarters in another part of the theater. It is tastefully decorated with remnants of all the shows they’ve done. Behind the concessions are rows of Playbills that Zimmerman displays, but they are only a fraction of the Broadway plays he has enjoyed over the years.
It’s fitting that the theater has a comfortable feel as the play is about family. “Tengo familia” is the Italian phrase that comes up often. It translates to “I have family” but actually holds a deeper meaning and embodies the bond that families have that holds them together through thick and thin. That’s the theme of Joe DiPietro’s script that follows the single Nick (Andy Massy) and his two sets of grandparents. Nick’s parents and siblings have scattered around the country, but Nick stayed in New Jersey where he was born. He regularly attends Sunday dinner with both sets of grandparents who have lived near each other his entire life. The play takes place in Aida (Vicky DeLaughder) and Frank Gianelli’s (Evan Gamsu) home in New Jersey that was, quite literally, built for Aida by Frank many years ago. True to form, the house is always hot and the air conditioning is only used “after the 4th of July” regardless of the weather. Nicky’s other grandparents Nunzio (Charles Christesson) and Emma (Pam Haskin) are rather loud and boisterous characters who can fill a room when they enter it. And they do.
Nick is the last of the kids and grandkids who still live nearby. He’s single and has pretty high standards which has kept him from finding the right girl and settling down. As his grandparents have been together for 60 years, they are always poking their noses into Nicks love life. When Nick tells them he has gotten a promotion, but the job is in Seattle, they start doing what grandparents always do… try to give him a reason to stay by, you guessed it, setting him up on a blind date with Emma’s canasta partner’s relative Caitlin (Jennifer Coville-Schweigert). What could possibly go wrong?
DiPietro creates a wonderful backdrop of familia life. DeLaugher, Gamsu, Christesson and Haskin bring it to life with great reality. They talk over each other, argue, laugh, pester and discover so many wonderful moments that you can’t help but think that THIS is exactly the way it’s supposed to be. It’s extremely difficult for actors to interact so effortlessly that the audience would feel like they are a fly on the wall, but that is exactly what they do. The only issue I had is that for an Italian family they often sounded more Jewish than Italian. But it’s a minor thing that rarely gets in the way. There is so much humor and heart in these performances that they invoke a lot of laughter and even some tears in the more touching moments.
DiPietro breaks the fourth wall often as the characters break out of the scene to talk to the audience. It is very effective and helps fill in the story with the thoughts behind the lines and some history of the characters. All the actors are extremely effective in connecting with the audience during these moments. The uncredited lighting design works well to delineate these short monologues. However there is one point where Frank is discussing with Nick how his father sent him here at 14 from Italy by himself when the special lighting came on. It was a bit jarring as he was not conversing with the audience and it took away from the intimacy of such a touching scene.
Massey does a superb job with Nick. He creates a somewhat complex and often contradictory character which is highly effective. He is torn between “tengo familia” and building a life on his own as many young people are. On one level, he wants his grandparent’s efforts to give him something to stay for by introducing him to Caitlin to work. On the other, he feels the draw of career and change.
Coville-Schweigert’s Caitlin enters like a breath of fresh air. She is incredibly genuine and likable. It is a truly impressive performance all around. Her laughter is contagious and you never once doubt the sincerity of her character. The scene at the dinner table with the family is just marvelous to watch unfold.
Those who say casting is everything undersell the importance of skilled direction. While this is indeed an extremely talented cast, director Shelly Stewart has created such a believable story where every actor knows what they are doing at all times. It’s extremely nuanced. She brings out both the comedy and the drama in a mix that is near perfection.
Debbie Payne’s set design conforms well to the limited stage. As much takes place on porch, she has integrated it into the overall design by making it blend into the living room and coming to life when the actors are “outside”.
I won’t give the rest away because you really need to see this show. It’s extremely funny. You will see people you know and wish that maybe you had a family that was so loving and genuinely warm. It’s also real and has some extremely touching moments. While you may not know it yet, I’m a pretty tough critic but this production is impressive and I highly recommend you get out to see it. Don’t wait because it’s an intimate theater with around 100 seats and it should sell out fast.