by Angela Dalecki

Caitlin (Michelle Paschetta of Folsom) brings a bottle of wine for dinner, impressing Emma (Ann Wood of Media) and Aida (Susan Triggiani of Springfield) while Nick (Matthew Prince of Media) realizes he's been set up, in OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS, at The Players Club of Swarthmore, running through March 31.

The Players Club of Swarthmore’s current offering, OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS, is a real treat. It’s a comedy about a 29-year-old marketing executive, Nick Cristano, who regularly visits with his four Italian-American grandparents in New Jersey on Sundays for dinner—that is, until he announces one week that he’s accepted a promotion at work and is moving to Seattle. Nick’s grandparents, who have already seen other members of their family relocate to far-flung areas of the U.S. like Florida and San Diego, don’t want to see Nick leave—so they conspire to keep him close by fixing him up with a girl named Caitlin O’Hare (Michelle Pascetta) in hopes that he’ll fall in love, get married, and settle down in New Jersey forever.

It’s great fun getting to know Nick’s outrageously funny, crazy, wonderful family. You know these people. If you’ve ever had a relative who always wanted to feed you (even if you’d eaten 10 minutes earlier) then you know Nick’s maternal grandmother, Aida (Susan Triggiani). Her other half is Frank (Dan Gudema), an Italian immigrant who’s getting too old to drive his car safely but stubbornly hangs onto his keys anyway. On Nick’s paternal side is his grandmother Emma (Ann Wood), a devout Catholic who’s constantly offering Masses for Nick in hopes that he’ll find a “nice girl” and get married. Rounding out the foursome is Nick’s paternal grandfather, Nunzio, a real character who always has a story to tell—even if he has to embellish some of the facts. Their conversations and situations are so familiar and fun that you’ll want to pull up an extra chair at their dinner table and spend more time with them after the play is over.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and more importantly, they all have oodles of chemistry with each other. Watching them, you feel like you’re watching a real family. However, I was most impressed with Matthew D. Prince as Nick. His role is a difficult one to play, because it takes a skilled actor to express the exasperation Nick sometimes feels toward his family without coming across like an insensitive jerk. Prince has exactly what it takes. He’s immensely relatable and funny, inviting the audience to commiserate with him in the show’s more lighthearted moments. But he’s also capable of being emotionally vulnerable when the script calls for it. You can’t help but like him and understand why his grandparents want to keep him around so badly.

The script is absolutely hysterical—the audience was roaring with laughter throughout most of the show. It’s not without serious moments, though, so bring a few tissues, especially if you happen live in a different part of the country than other members of your family. And that’s the brilliant thing about this show: It’s absolutely real. The humorous parts are so funny because they’re so true to life; but unfortunately, the same can be said for the sad and touching moments. Just like real life, there are no perfectly happy endings in this play, although it does end on a satisfying note.

The set design by Charles D. Sutton and Sandy Goldsborough is perfect—it felt like I was sitting in my own grandmother’s house, right down to the Catholic art and giant crucifix on the wall. And Kristy Boyer Chen’s direction is fantastic. The characters are true to life, the dialogue is snappy, and the show is well-paced. There are no scene changes that leave the audience sitting in the dark, and the show clocks in at just under two hours, including a 15-minute intermission—just long enough to keep you wanting more.

OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS thoroughly charmed me, and judging by the reactions of other theatergoers in the lobby, I wasn’t the only one who was delighted by it. This is one production you won’t want to miss.

by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Kristy Boyer Chen
March 16-31, 2012
The Players Club of Swarthmore
614 Fairview Avenue
Swarthmore, PA

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