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'Over the River and Through the Woods'

CAITLIN O'HARA and NICK CRISTANO (played by Shawn Alvarez and Greg Johnson, above) are set up for romance by Nick's scheming grandparents as a ploy to keep him in New Jersey with them.1 / 2
FRANK GIANELLI (played by Jim Sinclair, left) talks to his grandson Nick as Nunzio Cirstano (Doug Schultz, right), Nick's other grandfather, looks on.2 / 2

Several years ago, Jim and Sharon Sinclair of Detroit Lakes went to see a play at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior, Minn.

The play, a comedy known as "Over the River and Through the Woods," left a lasting impression on them.

"I said it was perfect for community theater," said Sharon. "It's light, wholesome, family entertainment."

"It's so funny, and yet so touching," said Jim. "It had such a great message, about the importance of family -- plus it had parts for four people over 70, so we thought we'd have a chance (of being cast)."

So the Sinclairs brought the play to the attention of their old friend Dave Goebel, a director who has been involved in many area high school and community theater productions.

"It's probably one of the best scripts I'd read in 35 years of directing plays -- if not the best," Goebel said.

"It's a comedy, but with some thought provoking overtones about relationships between the generations," he added.

Goebel presented a proposal to Summit Productions, the community theater arm of the Historic Holmes Theatre, to produce the play in the spring of 2009. One year later, it came to fruition.

Summit Productions will be presenting four performances of the comedy "Over the River and Through the Woods," beginning this Saturday, March 6 at the Historic Holmes Theatre in Detroit Lakes. Curtain time is at 7:30 p.m. Additional performances are planned for Sunday, March 7 at 2 p.m.; Saturday, March 13 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, March 14 at 2 p.m.

Tickets for the show are $20 for adults, $10 for students: However, area seniors age 62 and above will be able to take advantage of a "Sunday Senior Special."

According to Vicky Williams, the show's production manager, seniors can purchase tickets to either of the two Sunday matinees (March 7 and 14) for just $5 per person.

"I would like to see that (discounted tickets) happen more often," Goebel admitted. "If you're going to keep community theater going, you have to make it affordable."

Work on the production really began in earnest this past fall, Goebel continued.

"We had auditions in late November, made the cast selection in December, and practices started January 5th," he said. "We've been working four nights a week every since."

Rehearsals have been going well.

"This is probably one of the best casts with whom I've had the pleasure of working," Goebel said, noting that several of the actors had their characters' lines memorized "before we'd had our first practice."

"Everybody has worked very hard to learn their lines, so they don't have that distraction (in rehearsals)," explained Jim Sinclair, who plays one of the show's two patriarchs, 80-year-old Frank Gianelli.

Frank is "a self-made man," Sinclair said. Though the Gianellis and Cristanos are all of Italian descent, Frank is the only one who was actually born in Italy, he continued.

"He was 14 when his father put him on a boat and said, 'you're going to America,'" Sinclair said. "He was supposed to meet a cousin there, but the cousin had moved, so he had to fend for himself.

"He got a job as a carpenter's apprentice, and he met and married Aida (played by Jeannette Eiesland). He's worked hard all his life for his family. His motto is 'tengo familia,' which translated to English means 'I support my family' -- but in Italian it means much more."

Frank and Aida's counterparts, Nunzio and Emma Cristano (played by Doug Schultz and Sharon Sinclair), are "very loud and boisterous," Sinclair added. "Frank does not show his emotions like that -- but he's very passionate when he does express them."

Frank's wife Aida is someone who "has never ventured far from home," said her portrayer, Jeannette Eiesland.

"She's a middle child -- her husband was the first person who ever really noticed her. He was an immigrant, in need of someone who would care and look after him, and she was willing to do that," Eiesland said.

As further evidence of her homebody ways, Aida has never learned to drive a car -- but she "loves to cook," and that culinary expertise has endeared her to everyone.

Though Aida has lived a somewhat sheltered life, she is as passionate as her husband about the things that matter.

"I love the expansiveness of the Italian people," said Eiesland, who has traveled to the country with her husband, Dave. "They're so open with their emotions. It's been kind of liberating to be able to get angry, get emotional. I like the lack of restraint these people seem to have, and the family closeness, the desire to be together. That's all very appealing to me."

Like the Gianellis, "family is what matters to Nunzio Cristano," said his portrayer, Doug Schultz. "He has a gruff exterior, but he cares deeply about his family."

Though Nunzio has "a heart of gold," he also has the tendency to embellish the truth a little.

"He tells stories," Schultz said -- and he occasionally might use a little "revisionist history" for the sake of a good story.

For 60 years, Nunzio has been married to Emma Cristano (played by Sharon Sinclair).

"Nunzio worked on an assembly line for nearly 30 years, while Emma stayed home and made their household," Schultz said. "They made a good life for themselves."

Unlike the Gianellis, the Cristanos are very vocal about their emotions.

"They're both spunky people," Schultz said.

"Emma likes to travel, play canasta -- she likes to get out and do things," said Sharon Sinclair. "She's pretty sassy and spunky; it's been fun to play her."

Emma's mother gave her some important advice when she got married -- "not to be a woman who gets lost behind her family" -- and Emma listened.

The Cristanos and Gianellis share a grandson, Nick Cristano, played by community theater newcomer Greg Johnson.

"This is my first time ever on the stage," said Johnson, a familiar face in the local community band and at area Young Life functions.

When his friends the Sinclairs first approached him about tackling the role, Johnson initially said no -- but quickly had second thoughts.

"About a week after they asked me, I thought, 'I'm going to look into this,'" said Johnson. "I talked to Dave (Goebel), and lo and behold, here I am."

So far, so good. "It's been a lot of fun," Johnson said.

Though he's a newcomer, Johnson "has the biggest part, with the most lines," said Jim Sinclair. "He's doing a very good job."

It is Nick who poses the central conflict of the play: after living in the same New Jersey community for his entire life, he's been offered an opportunity to land his dream job -- in Seattle, Wash. Naturally, his grandparents are distraught at the possibility of losing the only family member who still lives in their hometown.

So they come up with a scheme to keep him there -- by setting him up to fall in love with a local girl named Caitlin O'Hara, played by Shawn Alvarez.

Though Alvarez had some prior community theater experience in Florida and some behind the scenes theater work in college and high school, this will be her local debut. "I've lived here 3½ years," she said.

While the part of Caitlin is a relatively small one, Alvarez said, she was attracted to the production because "I thought it was a cute play."

She had also been bitten by the acting bug after taking part in last summer's local Shakespeare in the Park production, "The Taming of the Shrew."

"I had so much fun with Shakespeare in the Park, I had the bug to do more theater," she said. So Alvarez auditioned for the part, and was cast.

Though there are some last minute details still to be worked out, the cast and crew seem ready for their debut on Saturday.

"We definitely need these last rehearsals to smooth out the technology, but we're ready to have an audience," said Sharon Sinclair.

"Nine weeks of rehearsing four nights a week is a long grind," said Schultz. "But it has been an enjoyable nine weeks. We will be ready."

There will be a little bit of a technical challenge ahead, Williams said, because the crew will need to dismantle the set for the week in between the two weekends of the show.

"We have a kid's show in between ('Happily Ever After...' comes to the Holmes Theatre on Wednesday, March 10 at 1 p.m.)," she said. "We'll have to pack up the entire set and put it away, then bring it out again without damaging anything."

But hopefully, that challenge will be handled as smoothly as all the other preparations have gone to this point.

"We're just really hoping we'll have good attendance," said Goebel.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454