For many people, the word conjures feelings of warmth and strength, feelings of home. Family can offer happy shelter from the storm, or it can be a source of great sorrow. And there is laughter, misunderstanding and the occasional wide valley of difference among generations and priorities in life.
Beginning tomorrow, Oct. 6, as part of its mainstage season, Theatrikos will feature a close-knit 1990s family from Hoboken, New Jersey, and their struggle to come to terms with generational differences, in the Joe DiPietro play “Over the River and Through the Woods.”
The cast includes Rob Peters as Nick Cristano, Kelly Gibbs as Aida Gianelli, Stan Sutherland as Frank Gianelli, Virginia Brown as Emma Cristano, Dean Benforado as Nunzio Cristano and Paige Latendresse as Caitlin O’Hare.
Nick is the only family member who regularly visits both sets of Italian-American grandparents living just doors from one another. He tells them he has been promoted at work and will be taking a job far away on the West Coast. They do not want this to happen, and they begin to scheme on how to keep Nick at home.
The play is co-directed by Mickey Mercer and Amelia Swan. Mercer, a former theatre teacher at Flagstaff High School, is a Theatrikos veteran who has been in several productions. Swan has cut her teeth on previous productions as assistant director and co-director.
The lynchpin of the production, for Mercer, is the generation gap between the grandparents and Nick.
“Nick is trying to separate from his family, and family is so important to Italian-American families,” Mercer said.
Swan said that two ideas are in conflict in the play, and those two ideas are “relatable” to just about everybody on the planet. Family is important, but there is also the need of going out into the world and being who a person is meant to be.
Mercer added that the production’s priority will be to feature the closeness among family members.
Nick is working-class, but he’s made it into the white-collar world. He is happy but conflicted about moving across the country.
“Nick is not blind to the events that surround him, and through them, he gets to better know his grandparents,” Peters said.
Peters has been performing with Theatrikos for seven years. He’s also good with tools, so he helps build sets too. In his rare spare time, he is the master of ceremonies for Circus Bacchus and has been “drafted” into Flagstaff Light Opera Company productions as well.
Peters said that what he enjoys most about “Over the River” is Nick’s dialogue and wit as he struggles to understand his grandparents and their priorities.
Aida is a caretaker, Gibbs said.
“She’s selfless and very innocent,” Gibbs said. “She’s typical of an Italian family. A nurturer. She’s sheltered and uneducated, but she has a big heart, big as all the outdoors.”
Gibbs said she enjoys the Aida character because she had a mother-in-law who was like her.
“So, I feel like I’ve spent 16 years at the table on that set.”
Gibbs started acting at Theatrikos two summers ago with “The Full Monty,” where she rediscovered the acting bug, and she’s done three productions since then. She had performed decades before when living in Baltimore.
Aida’s husband, Frank, is a self-made man whose parents brought him to the United States in hopes of a better life.
“They key message in this play, I think, is ‘tengo familia,’” Sutherland, who plays Franks, observed. “The family is a source of strength and support, regardless of generational differences. People don’t change, and although changes in the times and customs can give rise to conflict, the love in a strong family survives such challenges.”
Sutherland said he enjoys the colorful, lovable characters, the poignant monologues and the heartwarming storyline.
“I especially like the positive way the play deals with intergenerational differences,” he said.
Sutherland has been performing in theatrical productions since high school. When he moved to Flagstaff in 2009, he started acting at Theatrikos. He has since been a board member, served as president and acting executive director and has directed two productions.
Brown said her character, Emma, is the more outspoken grandparent.
“She speaks her mind, tells it like it is, and I admire her strength. We know Nick’s leaving, and we’re trying to talk him, con him, into staying. It doesn’t go like we expected.”
Emma and her husband Nunzio have been together for 55 years. They are sarcastic, humorous and passionate. Her motivation is to keep Nick home, to keep the family together because he’s the only one left.
Brown has been working the Theatrikos stage for nearly 25 years. Her first production was “Twelfth Night.” Since, she has been in more than a dozen productions and has even co-directed, but she said her preference is the stage.
Nunzio worked in a factory his whole life and is the roughest of the grandparents, actor Benforado said.
“He’s rough around the edges and speaks his mind, but he has a tender side, too, that pops up every once in a while. Like the rest of them, he really loves the family and wants the family to stay together.”
Benforado began working at Theatrikos in 2013 behind the scenes as the backstage crew. His first acting role was in the theater’s 2014 Christmas show, Miracle on 34th Street.
Latendresse is the youngest cast member and said she appreciates the wisdom the other cast members bring to the roles and the production. Caitlin is the unmarried niece of Emma’s canasta partner. Caitlin is sensitive, empathetic, and has a tragic history with grandparents.
“She definitely values family and spending time with those you love before it’s too late,” Latendresse said of her character.
Latendresse acted in high school productions, but acting took a back seat while she attended Northern Arizona University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in geology. Now that she’s graduated, she had the time to try her hand at acting again, so she auditioned.
“I’m really excited to be a part of a show again,” Latendresse said. “It’s good to do what you love.”
It’s a very family-centered story,” said Michael Rulon, first-time stage manager, adding that the play takes place in a typical home – a living room, dining room and front porch.
Although the play tugs at heart strings, co-director Swan said the audience can expect to laugh.
“It is such a fun play, and you love these characters,” Swan said. “You just want them to be your grandparents. You feel you know these people.”
Performances take place Oct. 6-22, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Doris-Harper White Community Playhouse, 11 W. Cherry Ave. There will be a post-show reception with the cast after the Oct. 6 performance. Tickets are $13 to $24 and available through theatrikos.com or the Theatrikos box office, 774-1662.