The set-up: Writer Joe DiPietro's warm and cuddly play about family and those ties that bind (if not smother) opened off-Broadway in 1998 while his tremendous first success, the musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (1996), was still running downtown. Change would continue to run for an another decade and have a phenomenal afterlife in regional theater. He hit the big time with the book for the musical Memphis (2009) for which he and the show received Tony Awards, as well as the Gershwin musical Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012), for which he won the Drama Desk Award for Best Book, as well as another Tony nomination. DiPietro knows what he's doing.
Woods is Neil Simon without the burlesque gloss, O'Neill without the terrifying angst, Thornton Wilder with a sense of humor. Over the River and Through the Woods is all about family, an Italian extended family, an immigrant Italian extended family. And the wonderful news is that you don't have to be Italian to enjoy it. Any family will do nicely, thank you.
The execution: Woods is a memory play, with all characters at some time reminiscing directly to us about what we're seeing. Nick, appealingly played with equal amount of exasperation and forgiveness by Marty Blair, is the main guy. Twenty-something, unmarried, career-oriented and orphaned, he visits his grandparents in Hoboken every Sunday for dinner. All four of them - his father's parents, Frank and Aida (Marion Atthur Kirby and Patty Tuel Bailey), and his mother's, Nunzio and Emma (Ted Doolittle and Marcy Bannor), who drop in constantly.
There are no surprises really, all the drama is the stuff of everyday life - Frank shouldn't drive anymore; who wants more to eat; what's a VCR? Nunzio reveals he has cancer; the five play a hilarious game of Trivial Pursuit - but the continual buildup of the average troubles and delights that make living both heartbreaking and elevating add up to so much more.
When Nick surprises the old folks with news that he's accepted a promotion and is moving to Seattle, the temperature inside the house, kept on constant boil by Aida, drops precipitously. But we're your family, they shout over one another. "Tengo famiglia," warns Frank, whose motto is, I have a family, I have a reason for being alive. Your family's here, they cry out loud, why leave? They feel betrayed and abandoned.
When Nick lets slip that he doesn't need them anymore, he might as well say that Aida's veal Parmesan is tasteless. The quartet goes into overdrive to convince him to stay. Emma knows an unmarried niece of her canasta buddies and sets a trap. Who knows, maybe?
DiPietro gins up the suspense with the appearance of the attractive Caitlin as Nick's blind date at dinner. Katherine Hatcher is appropriately lovely and street smart, later chiding Nick for his gruff treatment of these wonderful people who love him so much. She plays hard to get, wisely knowing that falling for him and then having him leave would be heartache. Emma might be right, Nick might stay here for her, who wouldn't?
A panic attack, a prolonged convalescence at Frank and Aida's, and some serious family talk conspire to keep him tied to Hoboken. One by one, the old ones fall by the wayside, but Nick has made up his mind by then. Another family, new but tied to the past, has begun.
The suspense of whether Nick will leave or stay isn't the issue really, but how much of the family's rich history and tradition goes with you when you do leave.
Under the cozy direction of Christy Watkins, the ensemble cast is impeccable and actually seems to be part of the same family. How wonderful to see Marion Arthur Kirby back on his home turf again, where he was an A.D. Players member for 25 years. He makes acting look so effortless and unaffected. His Frank is stalwart and grumpy, wise and wary, full of tough love and paternal sympathy.
Patty Tuel Bailey (also the designer responsible for the lived-in period clothes) gives Aida a simple yet moving reading. Always scampering to and from the kitchen to feed anyone who walks in the door, she's the family's quiet nurturer. Not so quiet are Ted Doolittle and Marcy Bannor as Nunzio and Emma, described by Nick as the loudest people he knows. They squabble and interrupt each other, telling different stories of the same event, yet beneath the loving contradictions they depict a solid marriage beset by tragedy, beautifully foretold by Bannor as she lays a soft hand on her husband's chest while they sit on the couch. Remembering their courtship, they leave dinner early, practically in a gallop to get home to relive the past.
The verdict: Family-friendly in the best possible way, A.D. Players' Over the River and Through the Woods is delicious theater comfort food, as warm and invigorating as a bowl of Aida's minestrone.
Over the River and Through the Woods. A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. Purchase tickets online at adplayers.org or call 713-526-2721. $38-$43.