REVIEW: Fire Hall Brings Unexpected Feels With OVER THE RIVER

Published on February 14, 2018 by   ·   No Comments

This is my review and there are spoilers.  Such is the world we live in.  -XOXO, Miss Jaye

River 01I want to start by saying that this production of Over The River And Through The Woods, directed by Paul Tandberg at the Fire Hall Theatre, did something that all good theatre should do: it surprised me.  This show caught me off guard.  I didn’t know much of anything about the show when I went in, and the first 20 minutes or so have very little to provide an emotional hook.  The script is from 1998, and it does its best to remind you that it’s set in the 90s.  There is a bit that goes on a little too long where the main character Nick (Andrew Huovinen) reveals to his grandparents that he’s seeing a psychiatrist, much to their horror and chagrin, that feels like it could be an unproduced episode of Seinfeld…or literally any other 90s prime time sitcom.  Another bit about Nick and his grandfather Frank (Russell Schonmeier) about the latter’s inability to use the answering machine is especially dated and will leave the younger millenials scratching their heads in confusion…if they can tear their own hands off their iPhones long enough.  But once we power through a few of these outdated gags, the script finally lets us alone to focus on what really matters: family.

The story revolves around Nick and his quarrelsome but ultimately loving relationship with his two sets of grandparents: Frank and Aida (Deborah Gerdes Todhunter) and Nunzio (Patrick DeMars) and Emma (Pamela Kalbfleisch).  Newcomer Anna Nelson rounds out the cast as Caitlin, the self-described “desperate” unmarried daughter of Emma’s bridge partner and a potential love interest for Nick, who is given precious little stage time or development and seems to exist only as a way of guilting Nick into feeling bad for arguing with his grandparents.  Nelson is quirky and cute in the role, and she gives a performance with some interesting facets, but she’s trying her hardest to make lemonade out of a role that is clearly a lemon.

ScriptNick’s primary conflict in the show is about whether to stay near his family and sacrifice a promotion at work, or take the job of his dreams – an opportunity that will take him all the way across the country from his beloved family.  Obviously the grandparents don’t want to see him go: he’s the last member of the family left around, and he visits them for dinner every Sunday.  There is mention of a sister in San Diego and Nick’s father (Frank and Aida’s son) who moved with his wife to Florida, but Nick is the only family to share Sunday dinner – and the stage – with his elderly relatives.  Nick himself is conlficted, and though the bickering with his grandparents and their bumbling attempts to create a love interest for him give him pause, he’s not sure he can give up this chance at a career he loves just to stay near family.

Huovinen’s performance as Nick is pretty good overall, though there are times when he drags moments out longer than needed.  Some pacing issues aside, however, he is a jovial and likable Nick and he brings you into the conflict: you want him to have time with his family, who are equally endearing, but you also want him to find success.  This role is tough because if it doesn’t have enough heart in it, Nick can come off as an insensitive jerk; if you don’t like him, the resolution of the play won’t have the same emotional punch.  Luckily Huovinen mostly nails the character as a sort of harried but likeable guy.

Schonmeier’s Frank is a sort of old school Italian guy, and I love that the character is written (and Schonmeier plays him) with a full emotional range.  He makes lots of jokes with his family, mostly focused on the fact that Nick has recently forbidden him to drive any longer, but he also gives an emotional speech about when he was young and came to America, and what it means to want to keep family close but also let them go when you know it means better things for them.  If you don’t get a lump in your throat or maybe a tear in your eye when he’s telling the story about the toy carts in his village, you might not be an actual human being.

L to R: Todhunter, Kalbfleisch, DeMars, and Huovinen

L to R: Todhunter, Kalbfleisch, DeMars, and Huovinen

Todhunter is delightful as Aida, and although the nationalities are different (and therefore the food!), she reminded me a lot of my grandmother: you didn’t go to her house unless you wanted to get fed, and have food to take home with you.  She’s got that always moving, always adjusting way that grandmothers have of monitoring the family and making sure everyone’s needs are met, often at the expense of her own.  Todhunter brings a lovely sense of joy to the role, a reminder that some people (regardless of gender) really do love taking care of people, and rather than see it as a burden they see it as a privilege.  Aida’s speech toward the end of the play about how lucky she is to have had people who needed her was yet another moment that got me more than a little misty.

If Aida is the practical grandmother, Emma is a little bit wild: leopard print blouses, flashy jewelry, and wild plans to keep Nick from moving all the way over to Seattle.  Kalbfleisch imbues Emma with a sly joy that is loving and wonderful, without any sense of malice.  She handles the role playfully, which brings a lightness to some of the later, more emotional scenes that keeps them bearable.  For a show that starts off quite fluffy and frivolous, there are some hard emotional moments and Kalbfleisch’s Emma helps keep a few pieces of the light around to guide us through.

Finally, the absolute standout for me is DeMars’ Nunzio.  I’ve worked with Pat before when I was AD with my friend Amy D on the Fire Hall Production of Moon Over Buffalo.  Pat has a big, blustery personality, and he plays comedy very well – and his comedic timing in this show is still spot on.  But in other productions I’ve seen him in, he’s never been as strong in the softer, emotional moments.  He tends to stick to his strengths, which are bigger than some scenes can handle.  Not in this show.  Early on, he gets a spotlight monologue where he lets the audience in on a secret he’s been keeping from the family, and DeMars pulls it all the way back.  It’s this private, quiet moment, and he gives you exactly what you need to absorb it, and then it just hits you like a punch in the throat.  It’s powerful because of how small and quiet it is, and the moment is by far the best moment of the entire show.  And to see that happen, and then see DeMars turn around and a few moments later be back to joking and teasing his wife and grandson is wonderful to behold.

OTRATTWTandberg’s cast do a fantastic job bringing this show to life, and after wading through the first 15 minutes or so of tired setups and dated material, this rich tapestry of family life emerges.  As noted above, the character of Caitlin feels like a wasted opportunity and one wishes that playwright Joe DiPietro had done more to make this character worth including in this lovable family portrait.  I hope that we see Nelson on stage again, hopefully in a role that offers more substance so that she can really shine.

My other major complaint with the show may seem petty, but I love the technical side of theatre and the design of the set filled me with an almost indescribable nerd rage.  Not the dressing of the set – I thought that was simple and effective.  Every piece of furniture was perfectly places to allow the action to unfold and every knick knack and memento seemed perfectly tailored to the life Frank and Aida are living.  The way that the effect of the door to the kitchen with pans hanging on the white walls waiting to be used was handled is stunning…except that the whole thing is impossible.  On one side of the stage we have a door, ostensibly to the outside since the middle of the wall features what are supposed to be two windows to the outside (Aida opens one to let in a breeze for Nick who is constantly complaining about the heat), and the other side features a door to the kitchen, where we can see the back wall and the large stove to our right.  Which means that the only place for that room to extend is to our left…right behind those windows to the outside.  Further complicating this design is the fact that the front of the stage is used as the front door, with the aisle acting as a path for characters who are coming and going.  So not only do he have a kitchen that magically extends behind a window to the outside, we now have a house that is only as wide as the stage and seems to go…nowhere.  To complicate that, the wall to the audience’s left also has an air conditioner on it, indicating that it too is an outside wall.  The wall to the audience’s right has…well nothing.  No door to indicate more house going off in that direction.  Even if the door behind couch isn’t an exterior door, it doesn’t make any sense.  Moving the windows from behind the dining table and over to the wall with the air conditioner would have made them less prominent, and less visually appealing, but it would have allowed the kitchen to exist as a real space and given us a believable shape for the house.

SkepticalThe devil, as they say, is in the details.

Spatial abnormalities aside, Over The River And Through The Woods is a delightful show that packs an unexpected emotional punch.  When I was watching in disbelief as Huovinen and Schonmeier argued about an answering machine, I never would have guessed that this show could elicit such strong emotions from even a dried up little heart like mine.  Give it a chance, and it will surprise you with some genuinely lovely moments of family life.  This show doesn’t dig really deep, and there aren’t a lot of hidden layers, but what it does in a simple way is ponder the meaning and importance of family – how we keep them close and what it means to let them grow and spread out so they can achieve all of the wonderful things we’ve always wanted for them.

You still have three opportunities to see Over The River And Through The Woods, 7:30 pm on February 15, 16, and 17.  The show starts at 7:30 – don’t be late.  There were at least a half dozen people who arrived at the matinee I attended after the lights were dimmed and the doors closed, and they should feel lucky they weren’t turned out into the cold without a refund.  Don’t be that asshole.  Tickets are $16, or $13 for students, seniors, military, and Canadian visitors with ID. 

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