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Ms. Rose's Dinner Theater bills Over the Tavern as a comedy, but it's also a slice of life, a look back into a world that once was.
It's a world that is hilarious as often as it is achingly poignant.
The first in author Tom Dudzick's trilogy of semi-autobiographical plays, Over the Tavern is set in Buffalo during those idealized years of Dwight Eisenhower, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best.
The Pazinski family - Chet and Ellen and their four children, Eddie, Annie, Rudy, and Georgie - live in an apartment over the family tavern, where Chet and Ellen both work.
The story mostly centers around Rudy, a 12-year-old who has a quick wit and a lively curiosity, much to the despair of the formidable Sister Clarissa, who is trying to get the lad ready for his confirmation, when he will become "a soldier in the Catholic Church."
Rudy, however, isn't willing to take things at face value. When Sister Clarissa demands that he learn the catechism answers by rote, Rudy wants to think about them, to discuss them, to try to figure out the why behind the rule.
Rudy is not shaping up to be one of Sister Clarissa's big successes.
Things are not much better at home, where it's obvious that the Pazinskis aren't taking any lessons from television's Cleavers.
Chet yells; Ellen tries to keep the peace; Eddie and Annie struggle to balance raging hormones and the fear of going to hell for impure thoughts, and Georgie, who is mentally challenged, behaves unpredictably. And Rudy keeps asking God why his family can't have any fun.
It would be easy for Over the Tavern to fall into the trap of just another show about a dysfunctional family, but director Thom Kleinert and his cast understand that there is power in laughter, and they mine Dudzick's script, which is grounded in reality, for all the humor they can.
Local theater veterans Tim Keogh and Lynnie Heinemann portray Chet and Ellen, a challenging task to which they rise. On the surface, you see, Chet isn't likeable; in fact, he comes perilously close to being a bully. But Keogh invests the character with a sense that Chet wants to do everything right, he just doesn't know how. And that includes showing Ellen that he loves her.
Ellen understands Chet much more than he does himself. In Heinemann's hands, it doesn't take the audience long to see that Ellen is one smart woman as she lovingly disciplines and protects her children and subtly rebuffs efforts to make her a doormat.
As Eddie and Annie, Josh Fruland and Chelsey Baker do a fine job of portraying 1950s-style Catholic angst, and Brandon Kothe makes the most of his role as the television-watching, thumb-sucking Georgie.
But the plays really sparkles in the scenes between Carol Ann Erford and Rob Wieland, who play Sister Clarissa and Rudy.
The deeply talented Erford plays Sister Clarissa not only for laughs, but as a person who is all too human as she admits her bewilderment at how the world is changing, and her flaws as a teacher. Weiland, a freshman at Toledo School for the Arts, is priceless as the class clown for whom unquestioning belief isn't acceptable.
In the hands of Erford and Weiland, Clarissa and Rudy become worthy adversaries.
And in the hands of the entire cast, Over the Tavern becomes a beguiling family comedy.
"Over the Tavern" continues at Ms. Rose's Dinner Theater, 25740 North State Rt. 25, Perrysburg. Remaining performances are scheduled at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Aug. 12 and 26, and Sept. 2; at 2 p.m. Wednesday, and at 5 p.m. Aug. 14. Doors open two hours earlier for the buffet meal, which is included in the price. Tickets are $25 (soup and salad) for the Wednesday matinee and $39 (full meals) for the other shows. Information: 419-874-8505.
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