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Theater Review:

"OVER THE TAVERN" at The Mercury Theater


Any play about Catholicism set in the 1950s is going to conjure up images of rosary-clasping, ruler-whacking nuns from "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" or "Late Night Catechism." And Tom Dudzick’s semi-autobiographical comedy, "Over the Tavern," prominently features a rigid woman of the cloth strictly enforcing discipline in her Eisenhower-era classroom. But Dudzick wisely gives his memories of his Polish-Catholic boyhood in Buffalo, N.Y. a brittle and touching edge that delves deeper into the importance of questioning authority and what constitutes a "normal" family.

"Over the Tavern" was a big hit when it opened this fall at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Now Pullinsi & D’Angelo Productions and Mavin Productions have moved the show to Chicago’s Mercury Theatre for an extended run. Its current venue, along the popular North Southport strip, is ideal for regular theatergoers and individuals who rarely attend live performances but will be drawn to the nostalgic subject matter. During a recent Saturday matinee, the theater was filled with a mix of families and older couples – a number of them commenting on the accuracy of the setting and the flood of memories the play inspired.

It also helps that Dudzick’s script is fairly straightforward and broadly comedic in parts. Director William Pullinsi creates an accessible stage environment peopled with actors giving impressively honest performances. There’s a freshness and candor to this production, which nicely balances the potentially ancient-history nature of the story with new insights.

Thankfully, Dudzick does not succumb to "Leave It To Beaver" cliches. And there’s a dark undercurrent to the characters’ seemingly clean-cut facades. In a subtle way, the playwright takes to task that hackneyed and erroneous notion of the 1950s being an "innocent" time.

At the heart of "Over the Tavern" is precocious 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski, who constantly questions the Baltimore Catechism tenets of his stern, elderly teacher Sister Clarissa. Forced to stay after school to recite the virtues and sins of the Roman Catholic faith in preparation for Confirmation, Rudy refuses to be force-fed rules and values. Averse to the Church’s insistence on guilt and misery, Rudy believes we were really put on earth "to have fun." When he vigorously refuses to be "a soldier of Christ," the young boy is visited at his troubled home by the ailing Sister Clarissa.

It’s Rudy’s household, however, that poses a greater challenge. His father Chet, who runs the tavern downstairs, suffers from his own psychological demons – putting food on the table but ignoring the emotional needs of his patient wife Ellen and four children (rebellious teenager Eddie, the sexually bewildered teenage Annie, mentally challenged youngster Georgie and the intensely perceptive Rudy). Chet also suffers the repercussions of his brutal father’s alcoholism. All of these tension-packed relationships are fully developed – making this more than your average antagonistic family drama.

Most impressive is the complex character of Sister Clarissa – a physically frail woman who later must come to terms with her mortality and her relationship to a God she has been forced to re-define. Dudzick gently addresses the generations of ignorance and tyranny imposed on people by institutions and the family patriarch or matriarch. This deceptively lighthearted play goes so far as to question the social order and our confounded connection to faith.

As if that were not enough reason to experience this enlightening play, audiences should make it a point to catch 13-year-old Bobby Anderson as Rudy before he goes on to greater stardom. An actor with keen instincts and a natural, unforced charisma, Anderson makes us believe every second that he is this scrawny, doubtful kid whose cries for help are cloaked in burning questions, silly jokes and a dead-on impression of his idol Ed Sullivan.

Neither smug nor whiny, his Rudy goes on a thoroughly believable journey of anger, frustration, vulnerability, confusion, defiance and self-confidence. He’s the most grounded character in the play; and ultimately, the catalyst for change in his train wreck of a family.

Other real and textured performances include Mary Seibel as the movingly non-cliched Sister Clarissa; James Leaming (replacing Craig Spidle) as the volatile yet good-hearted Chet; Suellen Burton as the unfulfilled but profoundly understanding Ellen; Justin Cholewa as the hormonally aware Eddie; Katie Korby as the confused Annie (secretly scarfing Twinkies and exploring her sexual allure); and Nico Tortorella’s spunky Georgie (who teasingly mimics his family’s obscenities).

Prolific scenic designers Richard and Jacqueline Penrod impeccably recreate a blue-collar 1959 household – from the dark flowered wallpaper and bunk beds to the tiny TV set perched on wobbly legs and cramped bathroom off the kitchen. Joe Tech Huppert’s period-perfect sound design; and Judith Lundberg’s authentic costumes (including Annie’s plaid school uniform and Ellen’s plain, utilitarian dresses) sweep viewers back to more rigid times bound to give way to caustic nation-wide dissent.

And leading the troops is Rudy Pazinski as he relentlessly demands real answers to his eternally probing why’s.•

"Over the Tavern" is scheduled to run through September 1 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport. Tickets: $38.50-$44.50. Call 773-325-1700.

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