Theatre Review: ‘Over The Tavern’ by Lancaster Regional Players at Lancaster Opera House

Tom Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern” recalls a time when the comedic violence of Woody Woodpecker and the shoot-‘em-up heroics of The Lone Ranger flickered on an absurdly futuristic black and white television set.

. . .impressive and entertaining. . .

A time when juvenile delinquency amounted to crude and simple street graffiti, smuggled and concealed “Playboy” magazines, and experimentation with beehive hairdos.

It is Buffalo, New York, in the late 1950s, and we are at the home of the blue-collar Pazinski family. They live in an apartment above their family owned tavern, Chet’s Bar & Grill.

The family kitchen is stockpiled with an arsenal of sugary breakfast cereals, a cupboard of canned beets, and either milk, Kool-Aid, or beer in the fridge. I don’t know why but it is so Buffalo.

The children’s bedroom is adorned with pictures of favorite TV stars, and the one bathroom and one telephone accommodate only one person at a time.

Chet, husband and father, is a gruff, complaining, hard-nosed provider, and his wife Ellen, is a working-class version of “Leave it to Beaver’s” June Cleaver. Except that Ellen has a more budget minded wardrobe, and you won’t find June snapping off a beer cap alone in her kitchen at the end of a long hard day.

Their concern is their kids who offer them no end of adolescent trouble. Daughter Annie is on the verge of womanhood and is convinced that she will never be desirable to boys, even in her forbidden beehive doo.

Oldest son Eddie is sleeping at the “Y” after an explosive argument with his father, and Rudy is demanding to know exactly what a “soldier for Christ” is on the eve of his Catholic Confirmation. He is not sure he wants to be a “soldier” at all.

Least trouble of all is Georgie, who gleefully shouts out his newly learned “dirty” word at the most inappropriate moments.

Intruding upon this domestic squabbling and sitcom premise, is Sister Clarissa, Rudy’s parochial school teacher who seems part corporal punishment advocate and part devout religious believer. When she visits the family unexpectedly, they scramble and hurriedly mount a picture of Jesus Christ on the refrigerator.

And there you have it. A domestic comedy ripe with familiarity and laughs. Especially if you’re Catholic. But this play is surprising in its dosage of equal parts humor and something approaching anguish. The comedy earns big deserved laughs from the audience, while the drama gets very close to genuine discomfort.

It’s as if the Woody Woodpecker cartoons and the pop-gun sounds of The Lone Ranger have spilled from the TV and have manifested themselves as verbal and physical violence.

Sister Clarissa’s habit of smacking Rudy on the head and rapping his fingers with a wooden ruler is unsettling. Even more disturbing are both Rudy’s and Eddie’s heated proclamations of hatred for their father.

These are genuine moments that are played out as passively as Ellen reaching in the refrigerator for a beer or Georgie clicking on the TV. And before you can absorb these alarming developments, or ponder the state of Catholic School doctrine, the family tumbles into another comedic spin and tragic notions are obliterated.

Dudzick’s play reflects family life honestly, and sometimes darkly, but mostly sweetly, all while Woody Woodpecker laughs his fool head off.

The adult performances are strong and solid. Greg Reggie (Chet) and Eileen Stevic (Ellen) have portrayed these roles several times, and although there was a slight lack of fluidity from them on opening night, they commanded a parental and matrimonial presence which allowed the stage a huge degree of ease.

Alicia Michielli as Sister Clarissa is justifiably bigger-than-life in a wildly entertaining performance that manages to exceed the bounds of her character’s devout religion to a level of humanity.

It’s the young performers who put this production over the top. Caroline Schettler as Annie, and Samuel Fesmire as Eddie possess a seasoned comedic timing, both physical and verbal, portraying youngsters on the verge of adulthood.

Isaac Fesmire as Rudy, the semi-autobiographical version of the playwright, is outstanding and natural in a lead role that allows him a wide range of childhood angst which he delivers masterfully. And he offers a funny Ed Sullivan impersonation to boot.

Ayden Herreid as the developmentally challenged Georgie, is a wonder. His believable and touching performance can only come from a child actor with a profound grip on performance.

Director Gail Golden and the Lancaster Regional Players have given us an impressive and entertaining “Over the Tavern”. It’s a treat to hear references to Swan Street, Chef’s Italian Restaurant, and beef on weck, in a play that has reached global success.

And a shout-out to Post Cereal’s defunct and maligned Rice Krinkles, featured in the play. It was pulled from the marketplace sometime in the mid-60s, due to its near total lack of nutritional value, and a racist advertising campaign concerning an Asian cartoon character. I remember it fondly. And it was so sweet and yummy!

It seems to fit perfectly on the Pazinski family’s breakfast shelf. Right next to the “Wheaties.”

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“Over The Tavern” runs through January 21, 2018, is produced by Lancaster Regional Players and is presented  at The Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.