The Madison Theatre Guild describes its new production Over the River and Through the Woods as a "heart-warming comic alternative for the holiday season." So when I found my seat at the full, warm Evjue Stage at the Bartell Theatre on Friday night, I started to scrutinize the set for some sign of the holidays.
An elaborate living room filled the stage, decorated with bowling trophies, old copies of National Geographic, and those itchy, crocheted afghans that hang over couches in the homes of old folks everywhere. The set was so exquisitely detailed that it kept my attention until the lights went down. There were collectible plates on the wall, family photos, and perfectly-arranged angel figurines. Without a doubt, the audience members knew where they were: Grandma and Grandpa's house.
But to my dismay, I saw not a sign of the holiday season anywhere. No Christmas cards, strung cranberries, stockings hung with care, nothing.
Over the River and Through the Woods tells the story of Nick, a young man who eats dinner each Sunday with both sets of his Italian-American grandparents. But Nick has some big news to share: a new job! For Nick, this promotion means he's moving up in the world, but to his grandparents, he's just moving away. They start plotting to keep Nick around.
The plot doesn't throw any curve balls, but the audience certainly has a good time. The show unfolds like a sitcom -- jokes play out with perfectly-timed, though predictable, punch lines. At Friday night's performance, a few comedic moments didn't work: a reference to Sacco and Vanzetti, for example, eluded the audience, but overall, the crowd guffawed at the right places.
There were tears, too. Like a sitcom season finale, Over the River and Through the Woods carefully balances laughter with tears. A few characters have sad secrets and not everyone lives to see the final scene. The family might be recovering from some bad news, but everyone's ready for cannolli and to laugh again at another embarrassing story from Nick's childhood.
The most memorable characters are Grandma Emma, played by Patricia Kugler Whitely, and Grandpa Frank, played by Tom Haig. Both actors bring tons of energy to the stage. Whitely's Emma is basically a stout, Italian Lucille Ball who squeals "Nicky!" instead of "Ricky!" As Frank, Haig plays a realistic, reluctantly-aging man who is not quite ready to give up the car keys. The slight Italian accents of the grandparents are small struggles for the actors -- at times, they are dead on, but sometimes fade away.
Set mostly in the summer months, Over the River and Through the Woods isn't about the holidays at all, but it is a story about family and food -- two things that tend to surround and, perhaps, overwhelm us during the holiday season. So while there's no Christmas tree or pumpkin pie to be found, holiday spirit abounds in this show, manifested as the love of family.
The Italian phrase "Tengo famiglia!" is echoed again and again in many different voices throughout the show. It literally means I hold family. What those words mean for the characters and the audience is something complex and beautiful that resonates well during the holiday season.