Thursday, July 29, 2010

To Grandmother's House

An expanded version of my review, with personal/historical context:

North Coast Rep this season seems intent on recapitulating my life. First they disinterred the Sisters of Charity from my grade school in Doubt, although the sight of a forelock peeking out from a stage nun’s bonnet was surprisingly scandalous. We used to wonder whether nuns even had hair. It seemed possible the Sisters were generated by some primitive form of papal hydroponics.

Now North Coast Rep presents Over the River and Through the Woods, a comedy by Joe DiPietro, whose book for the musical Memphis won the Tony this year. The play is about a grandson who dutifully dines every Sunday with all four of his Italian grandparents, and has to decide whether to move 3,000 miles away to pursue his work and an independent life. Despite the last name I inherited from my father, I was nurtured by my mother’s family and relations, most of them born in mountain towns of the Abruzzi. For awhile I apparently understood and spoke Italian and English equally, though my bilingual skills declined once my vocabulary exceeded 100 words.

Given this background (though in western Pennsylvania rather than the New Jersey of the play), when approaching this play I was frankly most worried about cliché and stereotype. So in an odd way I was relieved that the only element of the set I recognized was the afghan on the stage living room sofa, similar in pattern to the one my grandmother made for me, which I can at this moment see if I turn my head to the right.

DiPietro’s script included some historical references worth making, even in a comedy, such as the prejudices Italians faced. (During World War II, Italians in Arcata were not permitted any closer to Humboldt Bay than the hill where Wildberries now stands.) But most of all I was grateful for a couple of outrageously rare hours about Italian Americans with not a single reference to the Mafia. Or to the putrid insult called Jersey Shore.

Though I don’t recall ever hearing anyone utter the play’s mantra, tengo famiglia (literally “I have a family,”) the particular ties and tensions of the Italian family are, well, familiar. Judging from the audience’s responses at Friday’s performance, much of the gentle but pointed family byplay is universal enough to be ruefully recognized and funny. I expect the grandparents’ incomprehension of just what the grandson does (he’s in marketing) is widely generational. Despite some excesses, DiPietro’s script is witty, generous and evocative.

Evan Needham plays the uneasy ambivalence of grandson Nick with skill and the necessary charm, and Brittany Morgan Williams hits the right notes in the small but important role of Caitlin, the girl the grandparents hope will tempt Nick to marry and stay. But the evening belongs to the grandparents, played with both brio and delicacy by David Simms, Laura Rose, Lou Agliolo and Linda Agliolo. Even with some wandering accents, they make it all work by creating distinct characters as well as an overall portrait of a generation that began in Italy and finished their modest and admirable lives in 1980s America. Pace, timing, movement, expression--all the elements are harmonized in Rae Robison’s direction, achieving an evening of laughter and emotion.

Jenneveve Hood designed costumes, Daniel Lawrence lighting, Rae Robison the scenery. Over opening weekend, the Assistant Director officially changed her name to Megan Johnson. Felicitations to the former Megan Hughes and to Calder Johnson, both active in a number of capacities for several local theatres, who were married on Saturday.

Over the River and Through the Woods plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka weekends through August 12.

Now to expand upon these themes a little... When I was growing up in the 1950s, Italians were a big part of the common culture--there were even a few hit records with at least some Italian lyrics. Joe DiMaggio was the most prominent of a number of Italian American sports stars, Frank Sinatra likewise of popular singers and movie stars. But portrayals of Italian American life were never far from stereotype, even before the Godfather, Wise Guys and The Sopranos equated Italian with the Mafia (even though the Mafia was primarily a Sicilian invention.) So I cringe a little even at one of the North Coast Rep publicity photos--unfortunately the one the Journal chose to use--with the family apparently dancing their way through dinner. Having seen it before I saw the play, I feared the worst.

As it turned out, the actual moment depicted in this photo was brief and specific to a memory. (For the record, my family wasn't particularly into dancing except at weddings, or hugging as a greeting, except children.) The play flirted with stereotypes, as with the grandmother who says very little until the end of the play except to make invitations to eat. But as the play notes, there is some kind of truth that is distorted by stereotypes. Just as while Italian Americans were victims of stereotypes and prejudice, they also had them.

So I am mindful that my experience and memories--the way Italians were in my part of the world--doesn't make them definitive. So maybe the Italians in New Jersey really have their pasta course after the meat course, a scandalous reversal of practice where I come from. Or they don't know who says grace when there's company--when clearly it's the eldest (or in this case only) grandchild.

A couple of other details rang true to my experience, though. The Mass cards--my grandmother was forever having Masses said, and we were expected to attend the ones for my mother. One of the grandfathers refuses to turn on the air conditioning before a certain date in summer--my grandparents never had air conditioning, but the marker of summer was replacing the glass in the storm doors with screens, and especially the porch furniture: the covers came off and the cushions were in place on Memorial Day, and brought in on Labor Day.

DiPietro doesn't say where in Italy these families were from, which makes me curious, because their experiences seemed more characteristic of a slightly older generation than they could have been in the 1980s or 1990s (when the play was first produced.) Immigration laws made it more difficult for Italians after 1920, although there was another wave of emigrants from certain areas right after World War II, due partly to the bombings that displaced many.

Although my grandfather came directly to western PA via New York (in 1920, on the last steamship to carry auxiliary sails), where others from his town already were, we did have relatives in New Jersey who had come earlier. When my grandmother followed him two years later with my mother (then two years old), he didn't find out what ship she was on (the America) until it was too late to get to the Port of New York in time to meet her. So one of his relatives in New Jersey pretended to be her husband so she could be released. Even after I was born there was active communication with these relatives, but it was my grandparents' generation that kept up. Now in western PA as elsewhere, the Italian traditions have mostly been lost from the suburbs.

My grandparents left Italy, their children left their hometown but stayed relatively close, and their grandchildren are all over the country now, with their own children and a few grandchildren. But like the grandson in this play, I found myself living back in my home area and spending time with my grandmother, though for me it was after years of far-flung schooling and work elsewhere. Oddly, it was in the 1980s. There was a point when I was being pulled to advance my authorial career by relocating to New York, and a friend in New York pointedly told me that it was okay to leave my grandmother. (My grandfather, who had experienced poison gas in World War I, had died in 1966, on the anniversary of his arrival in America.) That wasn't my only reason for not going but it was a factor, and at this point in my life, I'm not sorry. (Eventually I did go, but that's a story for Rent.) By being around, I heard more of my grandmother's stories, ate more of her pasta, and got to see her face when I lit 85 candles on her birthday cake.

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