We shall know the things which we are to believe from the Catholic Church, through which God speaks to us.
That's the answer to question number ten of the Baltimore Catechism, How shall we know the things which we are to believe? And it's not good enough for Rudy Pazinski, a bright, normal twelve-year-old kid growing up in the late '50s. He likes comics and spaghetti and does "the best Ed Sullivan" in his school. And he isn't clear what stern Sister Clarissa is asking for when she demands he be a "soldier of Christ," but it sure doesn't sound like fun. In fact, none of what he's being taught concords with Rudy's belief that we were put on Earth to have fun. "Cards on the table, Sister," he growls like a guy twice his age. "I'm twelve years old -- what does Christ want with me?" So he starts looking for his own answers, to the bewilderment of everyone around him.
So begins Tom Dudzik's sweet, lively Over the Tavern, the first of three plays about the Polish Catholic Pazinski family of Buffalo, New York. Loosely biographical, Tavern follows Rudy home to the cramped apartment over his father Chet's bar, and lays out what happens there with honesty and wit. The Willows Theatre Company has a winner on its hands, and director Richard Elliott realizes it nicely from the beginning, where Rudy is wrangling with Sister Clarissa over his catechism lesson. "To astonish the sinner ..." he duly recites.
"Admonish!" she snaps, and digs under her voluminous habit for her heart medicine. "Do you see these pills?" she demands. "I put one of these under my tongue just as you drive a nail into Christ's hand!"
The relationship between Rudy (David Beal) and Sister Clarissa (Barbara Grant) is believable and nuanced. Yes, she's stereotypically tough, but we soon see that she genuinely cares about Rudy and his family. She has had years and years of Pazinskis, after all. Grant is alternately terrifying and appealing as Sister Clarissa, and takes the character for a nice turn in the second act, when she tries to make amends for something that happened while she was a novice. Like many places in the script where Dudzik sidesteps getting treacly, Grant keeps her character balanced and human, despite the fearsome trappings.
Things don't make much more sense for Rudy at home either, where he has two brothers, a sister, and a set of bickering, unhappy parents waiting for him. Praying for divine intervention beneath Jon Retsky's lovely "stained-glass" Gobo lighting doesn't seem to make Rudy's dad less of a tyrant, but the kid tries anyway, reminding Jesus to make sure that Chet remembers to bring home a special dinner from the Italian place. David Beal's Rudy is fully formed -- self-confident, loyal, and mischievous.
Home is a madhouse, where mom Ellen (Cindy Goldfield) tries to control her thunderous mob and doesn't have time to waste on theological questions. The relationship between Ellen and Chet (Michael Ray Wisely) is portrayed in all the complexity of two adults who have let family and money and sadness weigh them down. In the dinner scenes she expects him to fail, and he honestly doesn't know how to make her happy because he's too busy shielding himself from an old hurt, a dream sacrificed.
One wonders if Dudzik has a developmentally challenged brother, as he seems to work one into every play he writes. In Greetings, Mickey is the one who makes peace between the protagonist and his angry family. In the Tavern trilogy, it's Georgie, played by the most physical kid Elliott could find, the fearless Darren Barrere. Barrere does a great job with a challenging role, which shouldn't be surprising considering that this is the fourteen-year-old's 34th production. The way he hurtles around, over, and through the set, it looks as if he's angling to make Spider-Man his 35th.
It's also possible that Dudzik just likes having a character who can blithely say the wrong thing at the worst possible time and get away with it. In his 1980 one-act Me Too, Then!, that character is a parrot who reviles his mistress's dull boyfriend. Here it's Georgie, who learns that you can get all sorts of interesting things to happen if you say the word "shit" in the right company, such as that of your father, or a visiting nun. Dudzik uses Georgie to build up to some of the funniest, most slapstick moments in the play, but it's never disrespectful, and Elliott and his cast time these buildups very well, leading to some of Dudzik's other pleasures, such as flawlessly executed spit takes.
It's not surprising that Peter Crompton is behind the great set; he did the stand-out dungeon for the Willows' Man of La Mancha a few years back. Here he blends corrugated metal, the trestle of an elevated train, and rotating rooms into a slightly oppressive, shabby-but-clean whole, the banged-up universe through which Rudy moves, where the alley has to be swept every night and there's nothing in the cupboard the night before shopping day but nine kinds of sugary cereal.
It seems that things eased up a lot for Catholics after Vatican II, but this play is set three years before Pope John XXIII called that council, and the story is set squarely in a world where a boy can worry that thinking about naked girls is a mortal sin and his sister can get in trouble for wanting to tease her hair into a beehive. Dudzik has the Mother Superior announcing over the PA that children should donate their candy nickels to the "annual pagan baby adoption drive" and her teachers saying, "You can't out-think the Baltimore Catechism."
That said, you don't have to be a Catholic to get and enjoy Over the Tavern, and in fact it might be easier for those who weren't educated by nuns to sit through. The Catholics in the audience opening night were easy to spot; they were the ones sitting on their hands to avoid getting thwacked with a ruler. As is its tendency, the company has gone back in time for material, but this time it's not one of those "things were simpler in the past" productions. Over the Tavern reminds us that every generation has its struggles, but does so warmly and well.