Arts Listings

Family Dilemmas and Ties At Masquers Playhouse, By: Ken Bullock

Friday February 10, 2006

Nick is a dot-commer pushing 30, an Italo-American from New Jersey, but really pretty white bread. He is the good grandson, however; long after his parents and sister have fled the immigrant family hearth he leaves the city every week to spend Sunday dinn er with all four grandparents. 

“My sister says that the great thing about America is that you can move 2,000 miles from your family and still be in the country,” Nick says, and asks “How did I come from these people?”  

So the dilemma of the third generation is presented with the spectacle of the first, aging yet stubbornly holding to their ideal. Nick’s grandfather Frank (played by Wayne Johnson) puts it in perspective: not just to support a family, but to have the capability to hold it together. 

This is the root of the dilemma of cluelessness and misplaced sympathies that makes Joe DiPietro’s comedy, Over the River and Through the Woods—now running at The Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond—tick, but like a heart murmur. 

Announcing to his stifling f orebears that he’s been offered a promotion if he will move to Seattle, Nick (Dillon Siedentopf) sets off a chain reaction that blows up the next Sunday at dinner, when Nana Emma (Dory Ehrlich) invites Caitlin O’Hare (Heather Morrison), daughter of her ca nasta partner, in hopes Nick will find something “to hold him here.” 

Caitlin is an immediate hit with the family, even making it through her announcement she is a vegetarian. When she says that none of her grandparents is living, she’s assured “you have us now.” A convivial young woman, she enjoys the big family meal and the big characters the family proves to be. 

Even Nick’s impressed with her. But he’s thrown into a frenzy of apologizing to Caitlin, admonishing his grandparents. Caitlin refuses his r equest for a date however and finally he faints from a “panic attack.” 

It’s while he’s recovering on the couch, during the days that follow, that Nick begins to really see his grandparents—even when “getting excited” over the way they play Trivial Pursui ts. 

Grandfather Frank remembers the father who put him on the boat to America, alone at age 14: “I always thought my father was a bastard who never would give me anything,” he says, “turns out he gave me everything he had.” 

And grandfather Nunzio suppre sses telling him about his cancer when he realizes Nick passionately wants to go, to make his own way. The “black and white movie world” of the past he sees his grandparents in begins to show its true colors and its savvy: “You’re too serious, Nicky,” his grandmother tells him. “When we were your age, we were always laughing.” 

There’s a lot of knowing laughter in the audience at The Masquers. Over the River and Through the Woods is a natural for community theater, and fits every ethnicity that’s simmered in the melting pot. 

It’s played many times around the Bay. The last time I saw it, a Brazilian woman directed it in Marin; this time, director Renee Echavez is of Portuguese-German-Filipino background, from Hawaii, and brings her own experience of an ex tended family to the play, as everyone seems to do. 

She wisely has it playing fast but with a sense of dynamics that allows for the tenderer feelings to settle in by the end. Grandparents Frank and Aida (Marian Simpson) talk in stagey Italian accents, no t as extreme as Chico Marx, and balanced out by the All-American twangs of Nunzio (David Lee) and Emma. The play is a little too much like sit-coms, with Nick narrating and each grandparent speaking to the audience at one point or another, like TV talking heads. 

Caitlin, who is in some ways, the most interesting role, and the one played with the most range in the three productions I’ve seen, doesn’t speak to the audience, but tells Nick about her late grandmother, her own therapy and her “desperation.” 

The play is a little too synthetic, but the situation and content are real enough and the gags can be pretty funny. And, again, everybody brings something of themselves to it. Which is what community theater is all about. The Masquers know that in spades, as they celebrate their 51st season, “proud of the title ‘amateur,’ which translated from the French means ‘for the love of.’”› 


Over the River and Through the Woods plays at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays and at 2: 30pm Sundays through Feb. 25 at the Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond, $15. For More Information, Call 232-4031 or see www.masquers.org2