January 16, 2009

Tugging at the cassock
by Greg Boyle

Pity the poor Protestants! This is a big season in Kansas City for Catholic stories. Sister Mary Ignatius explained it all for us recently at the Unicorn; the current movie release Doubt explores an examination of faith by a priest; and Over the Tavern at City Theatre of Independence tackles the same issue with a 12-year-old boy named Rudy Pazinski. Take my word for it, there are a lot of laughs in Over the Tavern.

Sister Clarissa (Gena Robertson) gets more than she bargained for when she tries to find out what’s wrong with the Pazinskis in Over the Tavern.

Kansas City enjoys a surprising wealth of excellent live theatre. Our national reputation as a cowtown is belied by the outstanding productions. Within the midst of our fine professional companies, are many community theatres. These companies don’t get nearly the press as they deserve considering the generally high level of craftsmanship regularly on display.

City Theatre of Independence (CTI) is one of those amateur companies, and their current production gives us a taste of their skills.

Over the Tavern is a play set in Buffalo, NY in 1959, in a typical, though dysfunctional, Polish Catholic family. The #3 son, Rudy (Spencer Carney), is in the seventh grade and having a crisis of faith regarding his upcoming sacrament of Confirmation. That sets off a series of events that play out like a cross between A Christmas Story and a David Sedaris essay. That is to say, some of it seems outrageous, yet you can relate to every moment,

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is famously paraphrased as saying, “Let me have a child until he is seven, and you can have him the rest of his life.” The indoctrination that children received in catechism class, as late as the 1960s, was the equal of any brainwashing technique ever devised. As a result, Catholics carry levels of guilt surpassed only by Jews.

Accepting such a thematic explanation, this play, directed by Jamie Close, foreshadows the changes that took place in the Church and society in general in the later 20th century. Rudy, however, is a not a budding philosopher. He’s a goof, who is famous for Ed Sullivan impersonations. He’s creative. Thoughts pop into his head, and he says them right out. That gets him into trouble in a culture that demonizes (literally) independent thought.

When Rudy questions the meaning of several articles of Catholic faith, attacks come from every direction, including his siblings. He comically emerges as a hero against the rigidly entrenched powers of patriarchal family and Church. Rudy becomes one of the first of a generation that became famous for embarking on a spiritual quest when he suggests, “There are over 1,300 religions in the world. I’d like to shop around.”

However, there is no hint that this play is making any attempt to address larger issues. This is a kitchen table comedy, which allows the audience to laugh and snicker, and not think much at all.

In the CTI production, all the performers get a chance to shine. Carney (Rudy) praying for a miracle he can see, while on his knees in church; Jack McCord (Chet) and Gena Robertson (Sister Clarissa) reminiscing in a gentle hospital scene; Kerrin McNaughton (Ellen) excitedly reliving her teen years with her daughter; Lucas Piercy (Eddie) describing his defense of his younger sister’s indiscretions; Evan Robertson’s (Georgie) devilish glee in shouting inappropriate words; and especially Jennifer Benkert (Annie), whose first clumsy steps toward womanhood are funny and sympathetic. She slouches in embarrassment at her blossoming body, but you get the feeling she’ll need watching once she get gets the hang of things.

City Theatre of Independence is in its twenty-ninth season. Located in a pleasant city-owned facility; its 228 seats are comfortable, the lighting and sound systems are high quality, and their resident production manager/set builder R.J. Parish should have been stolen away by a professional company years ago.

Over the Tavern, at the time first staged in 1994, received only lukewarm reviews. However, its homey, easily accessible family humor achieved rapid notoriety through word of mouth. People went back to see it again and again, taking their friends and relatives with them. It led to a trilogy of stories that follow the Pazinski family through the sixties and seventies, which CTI will be presenting in the next two seasons. It should be fun to watch the evolution of the Pazinski family dynamic.

For anyone who still can recite the Baltimore Catechism from memory, this play is an absolute must. For everyone else who likes to witness spunk in the face of overwhelming odds, experience it, also.

City Theatre of Independence is located in the Roger T. Sermon Center, at the intersection of Truman and Noland Roads, close to historic downtown Independence Square. Over the Tavern is playing through Jan. 25. Call the box office at 816-325-7367 for reservations or go to

Greg Boyle can be contacted at


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