Theater Review: New American Theater's 'Over the Tavern' a family's search for identity

The flashing neon sign seen through the kitchen window denotes this as a living quarters above a tavern. The Polish family raising their children in the Catholic tradition retain the ethnic roots as their children search for their identities in the changing culture of the ’60s. Ellen (Maria Barwegan) manages the home above the tavern, while husband, Chet (David Kortemeier) draws the beer that keeps the working-class men of Buffalo socializing after work.

Mitch Hollis is Rudy, the 12-year-old whose conflicts with Sister Clarissa (Ruth Neaveill) move the plot forward. An extremely talented young man, he delivers some of the funniest lines in the play. His conversations with Jesus while on his knees reveal his dreams and confusion. Georgia (Robert Colletta), the youngest, is developmentally delayed. His 3-year-old behavior is played consistently, and discovery of his father’s favorite obscenity gives him the opportunity to become the center of attention.

Teenagers Annie (Hilary Kathryn Halsted) and Eddie (Steven Johnson) encounter values not held by the church. Their hormones erupt, and sex rears its ugly head. Annie adopts a beehive hairdo, and Eddie conceals illicit Playboy magazines.

Tom Dudzick’s work creatively develops Sister Clarissa’s character. The hard-hearted, ruler-wielding tyrant becomes a sensitive, caring counselor when Rudy’s defiance brings on an almost fatal heart attack. Their conversation in the hospital and her confession to Chet are some of the most touching moments in the entire production.

Tony Vezner’s casting is perfect. The entire ensemble becomes a coherent whole. He directs the young people successfully, and their humor and natural behavior enhance the play.

Technically, every detail emerges to contribute to an evening of professional theater. Janine Vreatt’s set, W. Alan Williams’ costumes, Jill Beardsley’s choreography, Erik R. Uppling’s sound and Eric Stehl’s lighting design are essential to a smooth and historically accurate production.

Over the Tavern ran in the Chicago area for nearly 18 months. How does a long-running show evolve? Kids are good. The memories of a Catholic education seem to add to the mix. The Nunsense plays and Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? are examples of the genre. Over the Tavern includes the humor, but Rudy’s questioning of faith gives a special depth to this play. A comment overheard: “It would probably be funnier if you were Catholic.”

Not necessarily. The audience reaction was consistent, and Vezner’s choice for opening is excellent. Two more upcoming productions are appropriate for student audiences: Alice in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night’s Dream–good marketing strategy.

Ticket prices are reasonable, and group rates are available. To reserve tickets for this production and to order a season subscription, call (815) 964-6282. An evening downtown can include theater, dinner and a time to socialize. The show runs through Oct. 16.

From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2005, issue

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