Monday, May 5, 2014

Mask & Mirror’s Latest: Theater for the Whole Famiglia

Photo by Al Stewart

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Thousands of wonderful plays have been written in the English language, so it should come as no surprise to us when we see a show that has been around for years but is new to us. Sometimes, however, we are shocked that we’ve overlooked a gem. Many thanks to Mask & Mirror Theatre Company and director Sarah Ominski for adding Over the River and Through the Woods to our play-watching repertoire!

Opening night was an eye-opening evening of firsts. As noted, it was the first time we had seen Over the River And Through the Woods. It was also a first for Ominski – the Mask & Mirror production marks her directorial debut with distinction. Finally, it was the first live Portland-area stage appearance of Jason Wilkinson, a mega-talented young actor whose performance as grandson “Nick” anchors the entire story.

The Italian phrase “Tengo Famiglia” translates literally as “I have family” – but in the context of the play it expresses the rich cultural importance of family love, loyalty and cohesiveness that infuses author Joe DiPietro’s beautiful story. Young marketing executive Nick Cristano has Sunday dinner (every Sunday!) with his two sets of very Italian grandparents in New Jersey. The rest of the family has fled – Nick’s parents to Florida, his sister to San Diego – so Nick bears the brunt of his grandparents’ overwhelming and sometimes overbearing love. Their hopes for the future are all pinned on Nick, whose failure to marry and produce offspring is a source of continued angst. When Nick informs them that he’s been offered a promotion that will involve moving to Seattle, Washington (not the close-by Washington, the one that’s all the way across the country next to California!) panic ensues. How to hold him in New Jersey? The cagy grandmothers agree – find him a good woman and he’ll stay.  What starts out in Act I as a terribly funny, but potentially predictable, romantic comedy morphs in Act II into a deeply moving story that captures the essence of “famiglia” in any culture, celebrating both the ties that bind and the importance of loosening those ties to make room for personal growth.

Aundria Pluck plays Caitlin O’Hare, the “good woman” selected to bind Nick to the family roots. Pluck is a lovely actress who gives her character an irresistibly appealing, down-to-earth charm, and her calm demeanor contrasts nicely with the Italian-American exuberance of her hosts.

Nick’s maternal grandparents, Frank and Aida Gianelli (Gary Romans and Robynn Hayek), create a classic comedy duo – the doddering old immigrant clinging madly to his manhood, and his loving, protective, but domineering wife trying to control a world she barely understand. Romans is a master of the old man’s confused, slump-shouldered shuffle but don’t let him fool you – he displays moments of impish wit and the monologue about his father provides one of the show’s best moments. Hayek gives her character a hilarious self-absorption, and is utterly believable as the spoiled and clueless, stereotypically Catholic queen bee of a constantly diminishing hive.

The family dynamic of the paternal grandparents, Emma and Nunzio Cristano (Jan Rosenthal and Fred Cooprider), is a bit more complex. Nunzio is dying of cancer, a fact hidden from all but his wife.  Rosenthal’s “Emma” is a high-energy dynamo, slightly more grounded than her counterpart Aida but no less humorous.  Cooprider has, in some ways, the best role in the show, and he makes the most of it. He brings a solid integrity and dignity to the serious moments (and there are several) but his unorthodox approach to solving a Trivial Pursuit question earns him some of the evening’s biggest laughs.

Jason Wilkinson’s portrayal of Nick Cristano captures all of the love, guilt, ambivalence and confusion of a man torn between two worlds. Throughout the show, Wilkinson easily navigates the personal growth and maturation that takes his character from spoiled post-adolescence to true adulthood, able to make his own life without abandoning the precepts of famiglia.

We are, as always, amazed at the ability of Mask & Mirror to transform a church rec room into a theater, with ample seating, good sight lines, and sets that are both effective and authentic. The simple combination living room/dining room, with lace curtains and pictures of Sinatra and the Pope, perfectly captures a contemporary household mired in the décor and ethos of the post-Korean War 1950s.

Director Ominski, supported by a powerful script, her production staff, and a uniformly fine cast, has created one of the very best Mask & Mirror productions we’ve had the privilege to see.

Mask & Mirror’s production of Over the River and Through the Woods runs through Sunday, May 18th at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard with shows Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm.

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