The Great Falls Players are ending their 40th season on a high note, mounting an exquisitely performed production of "Over the River and Through the Woods," Joe DiPietro's moving comedy-drama about the meaning of family and how different generations view those relationships. There are many hearty laughs and more than a few audience tears before the tale comes to a close.
This is a happy marriage of solid material with a capable cast, led by a director with a firm understanding of the play. The snappy dialogue would make it easy to get caught up in the comedy, and the sentiment could quickly become maudlin.
DiPietro must hold his breath every time the play is staged, hoping it won't be too hot or too cool. He should send a thank-you note to director Terry Yates, who has her six cast members balanced on the razor-sharp line between going for the laughs and tugging at the heartstrings.
The play produced four nominations for acting and two prizes for The Little Theatre of Alexandria at this year's Washington Area Theatre Community Honors awards, and it wouldn't be surprising to see a similar achievement from the Great Falls Players at next year's awards.
Nick Cristano (played by Gary Lee Mahmoud) is a young man facing a life-altering decision. A major job promotion requires a move across the country from Hoboken, N.J., and two sets of doting grandparents with whom he is close. Cristano's parents and sister previously moved away, leaving Nick the focus of the older people's attention.
The grandparents, naturally, are aghast at the notion that he might abandon them, but career-minded Nick tends to notice the irritants of life with his relatives more than the rewards. The grandparents try to fix Nick up with a love interest, a down-to-earth nurse played by Eileen Marshall, hoping that will keep him close to home. It's a hackneyed plot device, but crafted to produce interesting friction instead of expected results, and the diversion adds texture to the story's conclusion.
Mahmoud blends exasperation and warmth nicely; Nick's chafing under his family's attention never gets grating. But the play belongs to the grandparents, played by Lanny Slusher and Susana Romero as the Gianellis, and Bob Greenspan and Janice Zucker as the Cristanos. Slusher and Greenspan are particularly effective with their richly written roles. Slusher's Frank Gianelli had been sent to America alone from Italy at the age of 14 to escape the poverty that ensnared his family. The emotional wounds that separation created make him cling to the concept of "tengo famiglia" (literally translated as "keep/cherish the family" but imbued with deeper significance). Slusher adroitly uses a working class New Jersey accent, subtly tinged with Italian intonation, that enhances the authenticity of his performance.
Greenspan is low-key and understated as Nunzio Cristano, avoiding histrionics as a terminally ill man who knows that revealing his secret would keep his beloved grandson from leaving. His subtle performance showcases multiple layers of emotion and character to vivid effect.
Scenic designer John Downing, known for his beautifully detailed, realistic sets, might have been expected to create a warm, lived-in looking home for this play, but he went in the other direction, designing a minimalist set with only basic frames. It seems cold at first, until the cast creates that most delicate sensation, the warmth of real personal connections.
Although the family onstage is Italian, the themes and relationships are universal. In fact, except for Slusher's Italian nuances, the family members actually have what would usually be described as stereotypical New York Jewish voices. But none of that matters. The value of this play is found in the heart, not the throat.
"Over the River and Through the Woods" concludes this weekend at the Alden Theatre at the McLean Community Center, 1234 Ingleside Ave. Showtime is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available in person only at the Alden Theatre box office or by calling Ticketmaster at 202-432-7328. For information, visit www.gfonline.org.