Family-centered comedy aims to brighten somber times

Sunday, April 6, 2003

Watching Lawrence Community Theatre's upcoming production of "Over the River and Through the Woods" will be "just like going back to grandma's house," says director Jeanne Chinn.

And the Joe DiPietro comedy, with its emphasis on the importance of family, couldn't be coming at a more appropriate time.


Aaron Lindberg/Journal-World Photo

From Top Left, Don McIntyre (Nunzio), Alfred Lata (Frank), from bottom left, Kenna Frankenfeld (Aida), Dann Hurlbert (Nick) and Jane Malin (Emma), run through a scene during dress rehearsal for "Over the River and Through the Woods." The play begins Friday at Lawrence Community Theatre, 1501 N.H.

"All the things we're feeling as a nation, I think the play speaks to," Chinn says, referring to the war with Iraq and the American servicemen and women fighting overseas. "We all think about our families at times like this and how important they are to us."

The play follows Nick, an eligible Italian-American bachelor from New Jersey spends weekends bonding with his grandparents, who live nearby in the same block they've called home for 50 years. Though they sometimes annoy him, they're family, and he dutifully joins them for dinner, board games and conversation each Sunday.

But one Sunday, Nick disturbs the routine with news that a dream job offer will send him cross-country to Seattle. His grandparents -- Aida, Frank, Emma and Nunzio -- immediately begin cooking up a series of schemes to save their grandson from himself.

"It really speaks today because we don't think anything about leaving our parents and grandparents anymore and moving across the country," Chinn says. "But those family ties mean something. It's very hard for him (Nick) to leave them. He's very tied to them, as much as they make him crazy."

The play opens Friday at Lawrence Community Theatre, 1501 N.H.

Dann Hurlbert as Nick is making his Lawrence Community Theatre acting debut; he recently directed "Knock 'em Dead," a dinner theater production by Kansas University's Student Union Activities. Hurlbert, who moved here in August from Aberdeen, S.D., where he taught theater at a high school, said he related to his character.

"I saw the production in South Dakota. It was one of those parts I saw and thought, 'Oh, I should have tried out for it,'" he says.

Hurlbert was close to his own grandparents, especially those on his father's side of the family. They were killed in a car accident in the mid-1990s.

"It allowed me to get into the character Nick some and relive having a good relationship and then going through again leaving or having the relationship coming to an end," Hurlbert says. "It sounds all sappy and touchy-feely, but it's a hilarious play. The characters are very fun."

The grandparents, who Chinn says "steal the show," are played by Don McIntyre (Frank), Kenna Frankenfeld (Aida), Alfred Lata (Nunzio) and Jane Malin (Emma).

Together, they hatch a scheme to make Hoboken, N.J., seem like the most desirable spot in the universe. The scheme revolves around Caitlin (Trina Vincent), a lovely, single woman meant to cajole Nick into staying put.

The show promises lots of laughs -- at a time when a diversion might be just what audiences need.

"The timing of this is very good," Hurlbert says. "It comes after an extremely serious show ("Miracles" in late February, early March) and is much more lighthearted. It's really a lot of fun but still stresses the importance of family."