Thursday, November 19, 2009

Name of the game is DiPietro

Remember that old commercial — what was it, shilling sauce or salad dressing or something — with the slogan “Now, that's Italian?” Well, it’s not quite the immediate impression you get looking at names like Anne Rehner, Alan Huisman, Josh Bresette, Meaghan Willis, Carol Davenport and Danny Gerstein, the cast list for “Over the River and Through the Woods,” the Joe DiPietro comedy about an extended Italian family being forced to deal with unwelcome change, right? “Yeah, we’ve thought about changing the names,” says Stephanie Voss Nugent, executive director of Artists Collaborative Theatre of New England, which is bringing the family comedy to the Firehouse this week — and a woman whose name indicates she might herself be, well, ethnically challenged, at least from an Italian perspective. “They’re all over the board, and there’s not a single Italian in the group.” But Nugent, who will direct “Over the River,” says the heart of the story, the thing that accounts for its staying power, is not the idea of ethnicity, but the concept of family. “It’s about an Italian family, but it could be any nationality,” she says. The fact that the company grabbed four Seacoast Spotlight nominations for the show — with the current, decidedly non-Italian cast — demonstrates that you don’t necessarily have to be a paisan to be la famiglia.

Nugent is taking a quick break from the load-in for “Over the River,” which runs Nov. 20-22 at the Firehouse. “I think the show will sit pretty nice on this stage,” she says. The Arakalian Theater stage is roughly the same size as her home base, the West End Theater in Portsmouth, N.H., but the seating capacity of the Islington Street theater is much smaller, comparable to the Actors Studio. It’s her first show at the Market Square venue since 2004, when Act One staged two productions, “Noises Off” and “Forever Plaid,” in a three-way co-production with the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities and Hackmatack Theater Company. Act One, although founded in 1997, really started taking off during its five-year residency at the massive Winnacunnet Performing Arts Center, located in Winnacunnet Regional High School in Hampton, N.H. Nugent put the company on hold in 2004 after scheduling issues with the school district came up. When the West End — a “magical” space, she says — opened up in 2006, Nugent revived the company, which has mounted three short-run productions of “Over the River” over the past two years. It has been a consistent draw because it’s a nice play and a warm story about ordinary people. “These are realistic people you can identify with right away,” Nugent says.

In the play, written by DiPietro, author of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” in 1996, Nick Cristano has been offered the job of his dreams, far far away. Now he has to deal with the nightmare — telling the family — the grands especially, that the Sunday dinner that has been a family ritual for close to three decades will soon be coming to an end, that their precious little boy(and they always think of you like that, no matter how old you get) is going away. And, nope, they don’t take it well. They become increasingly desperate as they try to hold on. “At first you laugh until you cry,” says Nugent, “then you end up just sobbing. It’s so filled with love that you get a lump in your throat. It's about loving and letting go, or trying to let go. It about trying to figure out how to say thank you for for loving me so much. It’s a beautiful story.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Act One will stage Joe DiPietro's "Over the River and Through the Woods" Nov. 20-22 at the Firehouse. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, or $18 for students and members of the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities. For more information, call 978.462.7336 or log onto the Firehouse web.

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