Wondering whether to make the long, inconvenient trek to see the relatives during the holidays? First, go see Little Theatre of Alexandria's production of the bittersweet comedy "Over the River and Through the Woods," which, despite the seasonal-sounding title, has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. Even if it doesn't make you want to rush home to the family, you'll be treated to the best theater production currently onstage inside the Beltway.
Joe DiPietro's story of the importance of family combines sharp dialogue with comedy and wraps it in a sentimental package that never gets gooey and always seems real. The playwright avoids the temptation of the neat, sitcom-like wrap-up, creating thought-provoking, satisfying theater.
In lesser hands, the maudlin aspects of the story of a young man coming to grips with the role family plays in his life might easily be overemphasized. Or the accent could be too heavily placed on the comedy. Either approach might create an entertaining result with DiPietro's rich material, but it would be a hollow achievement compared to what director Suni Chapman and her superb cast have achieved here, which is the sense that you're experiencing the multifaceted tapestry of real life.
Nick Cristano (Michael Reid) is a young, single man at a crossroads. At 29, he's about to see his career take off; all that he has worked for is within his grasp. But it involves a move across the country to Seattle, and he'd have to leave his close-knit family -- two sets of immigrant grandparents -- behind in Hoboken, N.J. His parents and sister have already moved away from the family base, so Nick is the focus of the older people's hopes for the future. That is especially true for grandfather Frank Gianelli (Bernard Engel), who was sent overseas, away from his own impoverished family in Italy when he was 14, and who believes the concept of "tengo famiglia" (translated "keep/cherish the family" but imbued with deeper significance) is central to happiness.
The grandparents want to keep Nick from leaving, to hold him close and share in his life as he marries and has children. But Nick is focused on his career and tends to notice only the irritants of life with his relatives. A timeworn convention, inviting a young woman (Elisabeth Marinelli) to Sunday dinner in the hope love will bloom and Nick will grow deeper Hoboken roots, adds interesting friction and enhances the realism of its texture, rather than making the storyline predictable.
Chapman's ensemble has mastered the pacing of the natural flow of conversation, whether it's argument, reflection or joke-telling. The ethnic orientation here is Italian, expressed primarily in the foods and accented English. But the actors avoid stereotyping and with a few changes in the cultural references, meals and vocal inflections, the Cristanos and Gianellis could be any loving family facing change. Reid, Engel, Marilyn Hausfeld, Donald Neal and Elissa Hudson have developed body language and verbal tics signifying long familiarity and comfort, so much so that when Marinelli's Caitlan O'Hare character enters the Gianelli's home, she seems like a foreign organism invading a body.
The set for the Gianelli home, built by Frank for his wife, Aida, is the latest masterpiece from John Downing, who has created a substantial, gorgeous, but lived-in-looking location that adds considerably to the ambiance, even if the set decorators have underplayed the clutter one might expect to find in this home. Warmly lit in a golden glow by Frank Coleman, the home almost attains character status itself, speaking volumes about this family's values.
The play is an absolutely perfect production, and it will reach both your heart and mind.
"Over the River and Through the Woods" continues through Nov. 20 at Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St. Showtime is 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets or information, call the box office at 703-683-0496 or visit www.TheLittleTheatre.com.