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North Fork Community Theatre’s ‘Over the River and Through the Woods’ delivers humor, heart

One can argue that every defining moment in a family’s collective history begins around the Sunday dinner table.

And nowhere is that more true than in the North Fork Community Theatre’s March production, “Over the River and Through the Woods,” which runs through March 29.

The show centers on Nick, “a single, Italian-American guy from New Jersey who has just received a great career offer on the West Coast. That doesn’t mean his family isn’t still in Jersey. In fact, he sees both sets of his grandparents every Sunday for dinner. The news doesn’t sit so well. Thus begins a series of schemes to keep Nick around. This is a beautiful comedy about family, opportunities and the realities of life,” according to the NFCT’s website.

The show had audiences spellbound Saturday night, laughing at moments every family has shared, and sobbing softly at the legacy of letting go that every grandparent and parent must inevitably face as their beloved children spread their wings and fly.

This is a show about family, about a love so strong that it transcends time and generations. It’s a show about the immigrant experience, about a parent loving a son so much that he can send him off on a ship to America at 14, even though his heart is breaking. And then, years later, how a family can wave a grandson off to a new life on the West Coast, even knowing that, faced with catastrophic illness and the ravages of time, it is most likely that they may never see his face again.

The production is laced with humor — who hasn’t had a grandma asking, at every possible opportunity, “Are you hungry?” And then, no matter what the response, hurrying off to the kitchen to fix another plate of pasta, another sandwich, another cup of coffee, every meal sprinkled with love.

Watching the NFCT cast deliver this show is taking a peek into the lives of every family, everywhere, and sharing the commonality of universal truth. The cast is perfection, pure and simple, delivering powerhouse performances that leave the audience rapt, waiting in utter silence for the next words to be delivered.

As Nick, the adored grandson, Bill Kitzerow conveys deftly a young man’s conflict between the guilt over leaving his grandparents with the burning need to move on to his new life. His frustration and annoyance are tempered with moments of pure tenderness that shine through as he dances with his grandma, sweeping her across the floor, to “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.”

Rick Peters as Frank, Marguerite Volonts as Aida, Manning Dandridge as Nunzio, and Susan Vojcik as Emma are equally compelling, each imbuing their performances with the love and pride every grandparent feels so deeply, as well as with the gut-wrenching pain, hidden behind eyes soft with sadness, they they each feel as they say good-bye to the young man who has lit up their very lives, waving him off with hugs and kisses — and a pan of lasagna.

A monologue by Peters, describing his heartbreak over never getting a shiny, big toy from his father but instead, receiving only a “tiny, dark toy” — relating how he hated his father for years and found such joy in one day returning to his homeland and buying the most beautiful toy for his own little girl — was a singular moment of profound theatrical excellence on the North Fork stage. Only later did his character, Frank, learn the truth. “I always though my father was bastard who wouldn’t give me anything. Turns out he was giving me all he had.”

Susan Hedges, as Emma, the beautiful young girl recruited by the grandparents in a desperate attempt to keep their boy home, delivers a spot-on mix of heart, pathos and spirited self-revelation. She’s a talent, and adds a burst of color every time she walks onto the set.

With a book by Joe DiPietro, the NFCT’s production, produced by Deanna Andes, directed John Hudson, and with assistant direction by Kitzerow, is the reason the community needs to embrace live theater on the North Fork. This show is a masterpiece, a funny, heart-achingly beautiful reflection of the life truths we all share.

“In an Italian household, family is the most important thing,” Hudson writes in the program. “Everything else is secondary. Jobs, personal problems, even one’s sanity is nothing compared to the family.”

And, of course, he added, there is always and forever, the food. Because there is no life situation so dire or heartbreaking that can’t be solved over a plate of veal or some ravioli.

After the death of all the other grandparents, and with her grandson long gone, Volonts’ Aida sits alone during the final scene of the show, sitting down to a dinner she prepared for herself to eat solo. “Everything came out beautiful. Didn’t it, Nicky?” she asks, as the set fades to black.

“Over the River and Through the Woods” is a hauntingly beautiful, laugh-out-loud funny look at life and love and family, and the food that can only be found in the kitchens of our childhood. This show is so good you’ll want to go back for seconds.

Remaining show dates are March 22 27, 28 and 29. All shows are at 8 p.m. except for Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at 631-298-NFCT or www.nfct.com. For more information call the NFCT information line at 631-298-4500.

There will be a free Italian themed reception on Friday, March 27; all receptions are at 7 p.m.

Student Rush: Student tickets may be purchased for $12 at the box office beginning 10 minutes before each performance. These tickets are subject to availability and cannot be reserved ahead of time.