He'll Have To Go 

Circuit's insightful Over the River is as rich as Grandma's chess pie.

Before I can review Joe DiPietro's Over the River and Through the Woods, I have to tell you a story about how I am a blessed man. I can boast something that not too many folks my age can: a 92-year-old grandmother who is still very much a force to be reckoned with. In other words, she's not happy unless everybody around her is eating something. I recently bought her a CD player, and after the initial fuss about how I shouldn't have spent so much money and how she'd never learn to operate such a newfangled contraption, we sat down and listened to Jim Reeves crooning "He'll Have To Go." It's her favorite, and it has become one of mine.

Something happened that afternoon that I can't fully explain. She began to tell me things I'd never known before. Things she normally wouldn't speak of, even if you asked her. She told me all about her life before my grandfather, about having to sneak out of the house to go on dates, and about how her daddy had once run a potential suitor off with a shotgun. She told me how "mushy" my grandfather's letters were. Maybe it was the music, I can't say for sure. But as we listened to Jim Reeves, Hank Thompson, and some Elvis gospel, the years melted away. I saw my grandmother, maybe for the first time, as a young and exciting woman imbued with all the qualities that such a station entails. We had fully bridged the generation gap and, at least for a little while, all the language barriers that naturally grow between people so separated in years. I wanted that afternoon to go on forever.

I relate this little tale because Circuit's Over the River and Through the Woods hammered home just how rare and wonderful it is to have such discoveries. It is the rare gem of a play that manages to be sentimental without being sappy. I've always said that the best theater is theater that changes the way we live our lives, for the better. If nothing else, Over the River will make you want to call your family more often, and that can't possibly be a bad thing.

On the front end, OTR is Neil Simon redux with one tiny twist: The family in question is Italian, not Jewish. It's about a young man having to tell his grandparents he's moving far away and the various plots the scheming codgers hatch to prevent his leaving. Oh, yes, it sounds like the most dreadful play imaginable, but don't be fooled. The script is so richly detailed and attuned to ideas of history, genetic and chronological, that it plays like John Sayles lite. A fantastic ensemble cast, doing what must certainly be some of the finest work of their careers, makes the Brighton Beach-style narration play like something out of The Glass Menagerie.

Perhaps as a result of playing the chaotic Mozart in Amadeus, John Maness has found a physical freedom he's never exhibited before. He's a far cry from the wooden actor who loped through Stoppard's Arcadia only a few seasons back. As the ambitious young exec torn between his career and his family he is by turns ferocious, lost, and totally at peace. Marler Stone is similarly engaging as the loud, "passionate" Nunzio, who is called upon to make the show's most difficult decision. It would have been wonderful to see Herman Markell (whose Italian accent charmingly drifts between Athens, Moscow, and Transylvania) actually playing that mandolin he so often fondles, but that's a minor complaint given the quiet force of his supporting performance. While Janie Paris may be the most convincingly Italian of the two grandmothers, it is Dorothy Blackwood who carries this play's warm and fuzzy heart it only looks like a ham-and-cheese sandwich. From Stephanette Isabel Smith's fine set (which actually manages to look like a place where people have lived for decades) to the closing monologue, Over the River and Through the Woods is a revelation. It's rock-solid proof that a play doesn't have to be dark or even particularly tragic to be meaningful.

Take your grandparents, if you are lucky enough to have some around.

Through July 14th.

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