Dundas Little Theater plays the nails in the vicious/vicious cycle of familial love

If the stirring of empathy is the touchstone of successful theater, then consider the shifts in temperature I felt at Dundas Little Theater a measure of my admiration.

Let me explain. “Over The River and Through the Woods” chronicles a young man’s struggle to wean himself from the “comfort” of the home of his grandparents, Aida and Frank, which he visits weekly. His other nonna and nonno, Emma and Nunzio, always come too.

In truth, it is the Italian-born grandparents, all four, who need to be weaned. The young man, Nick, tells them that a professional promotion will take him to Seattle. He’s excited about it. They go into a kind of preventive Amber alert. Their lives revolve around him, or at least what he symbolizes for them.

The ensuing misinterpretations – Nick trying to set them up for his departure, nuns and nuns trying to get him to stay – create thunderous hilarity. But there are ambiguous nuances, making the humor richer, the resonance deeper.

Even before Nick’s announcement, grandparenting “comfort” already borders on oppressive. Aida and Frank keep the house so warm that Nick is still tellingly trying to open a window. And the food. Madonna! It never ends, despite Nick’s protests.

When, at some point, Nick recovers from a health episode, the grandparents continue to wrap blankets around him. Funny but also creepy. It’s as if it’s been fattened up, then cocooned for later enjoyment, not to mention roasted in the house oven.

And that’s where I felt empathy. Beyond mere sympathy; I felt the sweats that Nick, played by Alex Tessier, felt.

Tessier’s face appears to flush and stain, such is the conviction with which he expresses Nick’s physical discomfort with his conflict. Should he stay or should he go?

It’s a tribute both to her superbly driving performance and to the skillful and inspired direction of Tamara Kamermas. The decor, the blocking, the rhythm of the dialogue and the action, induce a feeling, yes, of closeness, but also of cut passages, of frustrated movements, of forbidden air. The periodic side scenes outside the door of the house work as well as a release valve.

The collective energy of his grandparents complicates Nick’s conflict. Each is strongly individualized, and the actors play them each with charming idiosyncrasy. Yet they also function as a single floating choral force of binding bonds. Still funny but more menacing.

They go so far as to arrange a blind date with Caitlin (played skillfully by Caitlin Wierenga), in the house itself, with them there. It unfolds with disastrous but also poignant comic perfection.

The grand pianos, performed by Peter Marshall (Frank), Ruth Flynn (Aida), Erik Peters (Nunzio) and Emma (Rose Pye), make for a great ensemble work, but all four each have highlights as well.

Here I felt empathy again. As overheated as I felt for Nick, that was how much I shook from the fear of grandparents at the prospect of loss. They have their own battles. Like Frank who has to give up driving, the keys in his hands serving as a symbol everywhere. And Nick isn’t always the easiest.

They may seem selfish to cling on, but their greed for him is informed by genuine love and a knowledge that Nick doesn’t yet have – of the importance of a sense of belonging, of a place at the table with others, to shape one’s identity as a full self. The balance achieved – the confrontation with the often difficult complexity of love – is another of the triumphs of the direction.

The laughter, the tenderness, the bittersweet flavor – all of this makes this show a real pleasure, undiminished by a few forgivable hindrances the night I went there. But it’s also a production that tests you, makes you think, even react physically. So bring a thermometer. And enjoy.

Along the river and through the woods

WHO: Little Dundas Theater

Or: The Little Dundas Theater, 37 Market St. S., Dundas

When: January 31; February 1st ; February 6; February 7; February 8, all at 8 p.m.

Matinees on Sunday February 2 and Sunday February 9 at 2 p.m.

905-526-3306

– Pacifica Quartet performing at the Art Gallery of Hamilton

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