BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — "Over the River and Through the Woods" was a bit like coming home for theater director Bill Storrer.
The Old Town Playhouse production about family love and separation is set in Hoboken, N.J., Storrer's old stomping grounds.
"We spent many warm spring and summer days on the sidewalks in Hoboken having lunch," said Storrer, who lived in nearby Newark, N.J., for nearly 20 years before recently retiring to northern Michigan. "I know the places the characters shopped. It's like reliving a period of my life."
The show opens today on the OTP MainStage and runs through Jan. 26. It marks Storrer's debut at the community theater, though he's a seasoned director of some 40 productions on the East Coast and elsewhere, from summer theater on Cape Cod to professional theater in Southampton on Long Island.
Written by Joe DiPietro of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" fame, the play revolves around an Italian-American family on the verge of breakup. All his life, 20-something Nick (Michael Kania) has faithfully attended Sunday dinners with his grandparents, Frank and Aida (Larry Hains and Denni Don Hunting), and Nunzio and Emma (Mike Nunn and Nan Worthington), even after his parents and sister leave the familial home for other states.
But when Nick accepts a job promotion that requires a move to Seattle, his grandparents — immigrants who worked long hours at back-breaking work in order to create better opportunities for the families they hoped to keep close — are anything but understanding.
Though a comedy at heart, the play has its sentimental moments, as when Frank tells Nick about having to pretend he was Irish in order to get his job at the Ford factory in New Jersey.
"The first time reading it through, I said, 'This is a hoot, this is funny,'" Storrer said. "But then I began to see the other side of it, the human interest side, why these old people cling to this grandson who's been coming to Sunday dinners for 29 years, and why he's important to them, and what family means. The key phrase in the play is, "Tengo famiglia.' In English it means, 'I have family.' But in Italian it means so much more.
"There are sentimental parts, but they're not soapy-sentimental. They're not squishy. At the end, if you don't have a tear in your eye, I'll assume you fell asleep."
As the leading character, Kania can relate to the quandary of leaving family behind for the lure of distant places. The graphic designer grew up in downstate Michigan, where his family still lives, and, after school at the University of Michigan, moved across the country to Portland, Ore.
"There were a lot of tearful, heartfelt moments, but I knew it was something I needed to do," said Kania, who moved to Traverse City five years ago and took his first OTP role in "Cabaret." "It's that sort of confusion of wanting to be close to family but at the same time, it's a big world. That is where it's kind of a universal theme, especially now, when everything seems achievable."
Besides acting in the show, Nunn designed its unusual set, dominated by a large picture window with its view of Manhattan across the water. The cast also features Jeanette Hagberg as Caitlin, whom Nick's grandparents set up with Nick in an attempt to tie him down.
Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. for evening performances and 3 p.m. for matinees. Tickets are $25 or adults, $23 for seniors and students on Thursdays and Sundays, and $14 for children at www.oldtownplayhouse.com or 947-2210.