Thanks to cable television, those who never lived through the 1950s have now acquired a rather glossy “Nick At Night” sense of that period. Vintage sitcoms foster false nostalgia for an irresistibly innocent era where moms in chiffon aprons bake endless batches of cookies, while dads?#34;with vague job descriptions and leather patches on the elbows of their sport coats?#34;always know best. Let me assure you the reality of life back in that day was not always so blissful and halcyon. In my neighborhood, everyone’s house smelled like an ashtray, there was lots of yelling, sex education occurred “in the street,” and child abuse was not even a concept. The good old days? I think not.
Tom Dudzik’s autobiographical play Over the Tavern at Village Players Theatre is a more honest, accurate portrayal of working-class adolescence than the stereotypic “Happy Days” images of malt shops and poodle skirts so often depicted in the media. But though the tightly constructed drama looks closely and realistically at late ’50s family life, this sweet, lively play is a lot of fun even when it makes you squirm. With strong direction by Edward Kerros, the capable ensemble creates a touching, credible show that leaves you wanting more. To say it’s heartwarming makes it sound like some hokey crowd-pleaser. It’s deeper and smarter than that. The characters seem especially real. It’s one of those shows that makes you laugh out loud while also bringing a tear to your eye.
Audiences at the sold-out opening matinee performance Sunday howled with recognition at the period detail from that time when Ed Sullivan ruled Sunday night television, as well as all the Catholic school nostalgia (i.e., nuns urging kids to put their nickels toward adopting “pagan babies” instead of purchasing Baby Ruth bars), plus virtually nonstop one-liners. Presumably spun from the reality of playwright Dudzik’s youth in Buffalo, N.Y., the storyline presents Chet and Ellen Pavinksy and their three children, a Polish Catholic family that lives in a cramped apartment above the bar they own. But the plot focuses most closely on wisecracking 12-year-old Rudy (Mitchell Hollis). The young actor is totally credible as this self-confident, rebellious, and mischievous boy.
Rudy’s bartender father, full of deep-seated anger, is played by Jim Keating. Lately the customers in his floundering tavern are driving him crazy. He wants his family to be happy but has no idea how to accomplish this. His youthful passion for playing baseball died when he acquired a mysterious teenage injury. Keating doesn’t make an appearance for a while. It’s perhaps the playwright’s variation on the old “Just wait till your father gets home” routine. The anticipation is a great hook.
The mom (Suzanne Nyhan Anthoney) is perceptive and wise. As people used to say years ago, she’s the glue that holds this family together. She’s also got a sharp tongue and quick wit. (Rudy didn’t fall far from his family tree.)
Chet and Ellen Pavinsky are a bickering married couple who have allowed family and money stress to wear down their joy and deflate their dreams. Yet it’s clear they still love each other.
Betty Scott Smith, an 80-something V.P. favorite, is wonderful as the simultaneously terrifying and sympathetic Sister Clarissa, the ruler-wielding nun who has an answer for every question, whether it makes sense or not. She’s tough?#34;even mean at times?#34;yet she genuinely does care about Rudy and his family. Smith switches moods quickly and her comic timing is excellent.
Rudy’s three siblings are confronted with conflicts quite different from those facing Beaver and Wally Cleaver or Donna Reed’s TV offspring. Eddie (Chad Nickles) is a horny high school teen who’s always sneaking girlie magazines into the bathroom and tangling with his father; Annie (Olivia Palak) is a sexually curious “good girl” who rats her hair into a beehive and rolls up the skirt of her plaid school uniform; and Georgie (Brendon Martin) is a mentally retarded boy who sucks his thumb, wears a Davy Crockett coonskin cap and repeats the “bad words” he hears. (Having him say the “S word” a couple dozen times seemed like an excessive cheap joke yet it always got laughs.) The script successfully treads the delicate balance between respecting Georgie’s disability and making him funny.
Rudy is never quite certain what his teacher is asking when she demands he become “a soldier of Christ.”
“Cards on the table, Sister,” Rudy says. “I’m 12 years old. What does Christ want with me?” He shocks the stern old nun by questioning his religion, refuses to be confirmed, and even announces he wants to “shop around” for a new faith.
You certainly don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate these characters or enjoy the well-written dialogue. The universal themes of family stress and love are well portrayed.
There have been lots of shows like Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Reflect Up? and Nunsense that poke gentle fun at some of the goofier aspects of old-style Catholic education. You know what I mean. Predatory nuns with clickers are shown trying to control kids’ every thought and deed. Over the Tavern covers this same waterfront, but at times it’s more bitter and harder to shake off Dudzik’s “baggage.”
Don’t get me wrong. Catholic kids weren’t the only ones who faced tyrannical teachers. I attended a German Lutheran parochial elementary school. The short-fused old Teutonic men who taught my wall-to-wall class of 55 children were as repressive and punitive as any scary nuns I’ve ever seen depicted. In second grade I was hung by my jacket in a cloakroom because I couldn’t keep quiet; in third grade I had my mouth taped shut twice. That same teacher routinely imprisoned sobbing children in a closet by rolling the piano in front of the door, and seldom missed his target when he pitched blackboard erasers at those of us who were squirmy, disobedient, or not on-task. Today such sadists would be exposed on hysterical news broadcasts before the sun went down. Back then, however, none of us ever told our parents we were so harshly punished out of fear we’d incur even worse wrath at home. We memorized our Luther’s Small Catechism. It didn’t matter we couldn’t understand half of it, we learned it by rote. After a half century, I can still parrot back all the exact words. (This fact both thrills and chills me.)
Over the Tavern is a wonderful comedy that often elicits huge waves of laughter but some of it does make you wince. The elderly nun is forever smacking Rudy across the back of his head with her Baltimore Catechism or whacking his palms with a wooden ruler, then telling him to “offer up the pain, Rudolph.”