Love your family, forget and forgive the sins of the past and above all be true to yourself. That is the gentle message that we find tucked into the scenes of Tom Dudzick’s Over The Tavern being presented on the Main Stage of Olney Theatre Center this fall. Directed by John Going this fond coming-of-age tale focuses on the Pazinski family, your average Catholic-Polish family living atop the tavern their father runs in 1959. At the center of the family is 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski who not only loves doing his Ed Sullivan impersonations, but has a vastly curious mind. This is all well and fine until he starts to question Sister Clarissa about why God put them on earth and starts to use his vast creativity to come up with new theories on religion. It’s as tender and touching as it is comical and entertaining.
Set Designer James Wolk creates the world of the Pazinski household in a multi-tiered apartment giving us a brilliant cross-section that is finely furnished, detailed immaculately and aged to appear as if it were plucked straight out of 1959. The rooms are neatly segmented, letting us see the kitchen where much of the action takes place; a tiny sitting room with the old rabbit-ear television, the little narrow staircase that leads up to the bedrooms, and numerous doors at the top of said stairs for Annie, Eddie, and of course Rudy’s parents room as well as the bathroom. Wolk maintains a balance between full-furnished decorating without managing to make the set look too cluttered or too bare. It really invites the audience into a time gone by and helps place us into the mentality of the time that the characters are functioning in.
The overall relationships developed throughout the piece are strong. Rudy’s character does the best at making connections to the other characters in the show, which is expected as he becomes the focal point upon which the story revolves. The family dynamic is clear among the actors – the overpowering father who has the emotional range of a teaspoon because of his own conflictions, the doting and coddling mother, and four kids with their own unique way of fitting in. It will strike a chord with anyone who has a family or has ever been part of a family with just how difficult being in a family can be at times.
Falling short of superior expectations is Sister Clarissa (Carol Schultz). While she fits the bill in physicality and occasionally in her tonality, at times Schultz doesn’t measure up the ruler’s length of the fierce and stoic nun that’s indicated in Dudzick’s text. Schultz appears to grapple with attempting to not overdo the character (and this may be the Director’s choice), and in doing so she pulls her emotional and physical expressions back short, but this ends up leaving the character reaching for more instead of appearing too cartoony. Schultz does have an impressive confession scene late in Act II that gives us a little insight into her true emotional range.
There is a similar problem in Ellen Pazinski (Deborah Hazlett) – Rudy’s mother. Hazlett, while warm and molly coddling toward her children at times just comes off slightly bland. She, however, does give a convincing performance in scenes with her husband, chastising him one moment with a stern but levelheaded voice and dancing with him fondly the next. When she hits her mark it’s very maternal and instinctual.
The men of the show truly carry the motion and progress of the story. Chet Pazinski (Paul Morella) the emotionally stunted father manages to take Dudzick’s one dimensional father and transform him into something deeper and richer. Morella takes the character who is just shouting all the time and gives him emotional depth; pulling back to whispered anger or exasperated pleas, letting this overstressed father have several dimensions below the surface. Morella’s scene time with Rudy is a series of strong emotional moments shared between the two in a tug-of-war fashion.
As for the children they each play their part brilliantly. Annie (Corrieanne Stein) is fidgety and insistent. Her attitude shifts gears frequently and seamlessly as a youthful girl of her age might be expected to do. Stein melts easily under the tensions of the household and her own personal issues with boys and carries an air of insecure charm about her that makes her delightful to watch. Eddie (Connor Aikin) masters the role of meathead extraordinaire. Aikin has a temper not unlike his father and shoots it off at the most inappropriate moments while still carrying that thick-skull aspect of his character right on his face. Aikin has a keen sense of timing, letting his lines really resonate before moving on and adds a heightened sense of tension with simple outbursts to already intense moments.
Then there’s Georgie (Christopher Cox). Cox takes on the challenging task of playing the mentally retarded son and does so with radiant excellence. His repetitive gestures, stunted speech and constant vacant look in his eyes help create this character in a firm light of his disability without being too much. His little inappropriate vocal explosions of parroted profanity are wildly hilarious and he sticks with the character never breaking out when the moments become too funny or two serious.
The spotlight of the show comes into focus on Rudy (Noah Chiet). There is a clear distinction between 12-year-old boy and wannabe comedian in Chiet’s character. During scenes of prayer in the chapel we see a cheeky side of the intellectually curious youth as he prays for serious stuff, like the spaghetti. His impersonations are ghostly shades of accurate in regards to Ed Sullivan and when he blurts out his beliefs to Sister he gets the whole audience rolling with great big belly laughs. Chiet motivates the action of the show with his uncertain beliefs and his quirky way of expressing them. A stunning performance from such a young and talented actor. He makes the show worth every laugh you laugh, and every tear you feel welling up at the back of your eyes.
You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy Over the Tavern, and anyone who has a religion or who is thinking about having a religion should come enjoy this wildly entertaining and heartwarming tale of a little boy who just isn’t so sure about his own.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Over The Tavern plays through October 21, 2012 at Olney Theatre Center’s Main Stage – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. For tickets, please call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or purchase them online.
Read Joel Markowitz’s interview with Noah Chiet in Part One of ‘Meet the Young Cast of Over the Tavern on DCMTA.