Anne and I braved the winter storm that had descended upon Saint Louis this weekend, to see the Sunday matinée of the Rep’s latest production, Over the Tavern. This play was alternately funny, poignant and eventually redemptive. Set in Buffalo at the end of the Eisenhower administration the play is mainly an irreverent remembrance of the author’s Polish-Catholic upbringing.
The Pazinski family comprises most of the cast. Chet, the angry father is a hard man whose life turned out very differently from what he had hoped for. Ellen, the long suffering mother tries to keep their children in line while hoping they have a better childhood than she had. Chet and Ellen have four children. At 16, Annie is the oldest child and is just starting to work through her new emotions as a young woman. The play is only somewhat autobiographical; the author actually had two sisters, so he claims to have combined their worst qualities into one. Eddie, 15, is a teenager with a desire to make his own way in the world, but might cause some trouble along the way. Everyone’s favorite ray of sunshine, Georgie, 13, may be cognitively disabled, but in the vernacular of that time, he is a retard. Still he brings great joy and unity to his family. Finally, there is Rudy, 12, the comedian of the family and the author personified. There is one more family member, but he never appears in the play, that is Pops, Chet’s father. In some ways Pops is a shade that overshadows everyone. The only non-family member to appear in the play is Sister Clarissa. She and Rudy battle each other for his immortal soul across the battlefields of catechism, confirmation training and Catholic dogma.
The first act of this play ladles heavily the angst of a family on the verge of dysfunction. Atop this angry base, layers of Catholic humor are liberally leavened. The word trite comes to mind. Come the intermission this mix had not gone down so well for me and I was left with a sour stomach. In the second act, one-by-one the characters come to Jesus until finally the prodigal father is also redeemed. I guess that the author felt that he first had to tear us all down, before he could begin to build us up again. By the final curtain though, I left satisfied with the play. Theatrically, we must sin first, before we are saved.
I come, in part, from Polish-Catholics. Maybe that is why I didn’t find all of the play’s jokes so funny. But what eventually won me over was the author’s more serious treatment of Polish-Catholics. Like some of the problems that the Pazinski family wrestled with in the play, I wrestle with today. To some extent I think that all parents do. We want the best for our children. We want to raise them right. Sometimes our wants prevent us from seeing what they really need.