Satan has the netherworld on a string, but in one area, the little flame-thrower could use some big-time input from us finites. See, he has these funny green teeth—at least he did in the 1950s, when Pepsodent came out with a newfangled whitener. If the Roman Catholic Church had a sense of humor (which it clearly does not and never did, especially in the Eisenhower years), it'd easily find the cute side to that little anecdote. But if “cute” rears its ugly head around every ugly corner, can mortal sin be far behind?
Catholic school 50 years ago was hard enough (ask me how I know), what with all those horny-ass nuns masquerading as The Michelin Man and trading the prospect of a roll in the hay for their shameful part in corporal punishment. Throw in a scattershot family, and you have Over the Tavern, North Coast Repertory Theatre's season closer about the church's guilt-trip expertise. It sports a weakish climax (we don't get the kind of revelations we expect after a lonnnng build-up), and instead of sketching characters, writer Tom Dudzick spends the first 20 minutes offering set-ups about the church's strong-arm tactics. But, for those recovering Catholics (like me) who went through the same experiences at the same time in roughly the same locale, this couldn't be a more spirited trip down Memory Lane, strewn with physical high jinks and some serious reflection on one boy's quest to make sense of it all.
Rudy Pazinski (Ian Brininstool) is no different than any other 12-year-old Buffalo kid besieged by God's “rules, rules, rules,” except for one thing—that big fat brain, with its nonstop questions about religious justice and its stoicism in the face of Sister Clarissa (Lynne Griffin) and her knuckle-cracking ruler. Parents Ellen and Chet (Courtney Corey and Matt Thompson) live above a bar Chet owns; that translates to a lower-middle-class existence for the kids, which include Annie (Abbey Howe), Eddie (James Patterson) and Georgie (Thor Sigurdsson). Dudzick adds a minor stroke of genius to the mix: Georgie is retarded, a constant, unsung reminder of Jesus' oversight (especially in his delight in the term “Shit!,” which he trumpets to mom's exasperation).
Clarissa's consternation; Eddie's and Annie's budding sexuality; Chet's frustration amid an injury-abbreviated baseball career and his inability to remember to pick up dinner: Dudzick colors them all in excruciating detail, and the actors take it from there. Brininstool is a marvel as bright-eyed Rudy, fueling the religious fear among his sibs and the desperation between his folks. He wins the intellectual tug-of-war with his dad, and Thompson is excellent as the luggish, vanquished patriarch. His is the love God intended for his family, a bond not even the chastened Clarissa can compromise.
I was expecting Georgie to play a more pivotal part amid his defenselessness—but no matter. Director David Ellenstein and soundman Chris Luessmann have crafted an excellent portrayal of '50s paranoia and the church's role in it. If you're Catholic and older than 40, you'll see yourself. If you're neither, lucky you, you'll bear happy witness to history. Very, very good.This review is based on the opening-night production of June 20. Over the Tavern runs through July 12 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. $32-$39. 858-481-1055, www.northcoastrep.org. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.