Over the Tavern: Reflections on a Trip to the theatre

Yesterday was my first visit to the Kavinoky Theatre, where the offering was the 20th anniversary production of Tom Dudzick’s Over the Tavern. The local media have been very complimentary–not surprising, as it is set in 1959 Buffalo, NY, and hometown references go down well here.  Nonetheless, the critical acclaim is (in my never-modest opinion) well-deserved.

It’s a story of the Pazinskis, a working-class Catholic family (although the mother was raised Presbyterian), centering on the impending confirmation of 12-year-old Rudy. Rudy has serious questions about God and the church, and simply memorizing the Baltimore Catechism fails to yield satisfactory answers.  This puts the boy in perpetual conflict with Sister Clarissa, his teacher who also taught his father Chet decades earlier–and because conflict with a nun meant detention, it puts these two into contact more than (one would think) either of them care to be.  Sister Clarissa’s rigidity, and use of corporal punishment, eventually horrify Ellen Pazinski, whose admonition that “from now on, nobody hits my kid except me”.  This, combined with Rudy’s assertion that “There are over 1300 religions in the world.  I’d like to shop around” , causes the old nun to collapse in heart failure in the living room over the tavern, and lands her in the hospital.

When Rudy visits her, bringing gifts of a rosary made of Trix and the ruler which she broke over his hand (and which he has clumsily mended), a startling admission is made:  Clarissa has always questioned the harsh methods (including corporal punishment and threats of eternal damnation) which she has been required to exercise during her teaching career.  She even shows a certain admiration for the adolescent rebel, when she says “The first trouble maker in the church was 2000 years ago.  I suggest you get to work.”

It’s a tale of family conflict, with four adolescent children (three sons, one of whom is mentally challenged, plus a daughter), and stereotypes of the working-class Catholic families in mid-20th century Buffalo.  Many in the audience laughed heartily–partly because it is funny, but also, perhaps, because things are most funny when they are most true. And for many, the bellicose father, over-worked mother, and blind adherence to church authority, must have felt very real.

Not surprisingly, I saw the emergence of Fowler’s Stage 4 in Rudy’s questioning the faith to which his family wanted him to commit.  His times at private prayer in the church indicated that Rudy was asking the questions–about why his brother was developmentally disabled, why his friend’s father physically abused him, why his own father was in a bad mood–had no adequate answers.  Rudy moves past prayer to Jesus as a letter to Santa Claus of desires to be granted.  His Ed Sullivan imitation includes a brilliant segment with Jesus as a variety-show guest, where Jesus questions the burdensome rules and regulations that he didn’t put in place (like not eating meat on Fridays).  This sits poorly with the family, which are at most a Fowler Stage 3.  The most religious character–Sister Clarissa herself–is, with her dogged adherence to church teaching and unquestioning (until the very end) insistence on the “rightness” of the church, leading to a kind of quid-pro-quo of “correct” behavior and obedience in exchange for “salvation”, perhaps a stage 2, but in the end may progress a little beyond.  The youngest character is moving past conventional participation in church, and unquestioning acceptance of institutional teaching.  It is primarily fear that keeps the other characters at a less mature stage of faith development.

But fear of what?  Hell is one possibility.  Being wrong is another.  Being seen as not having all the answers–or perhaps having dedicated one’s life to something one can no longer accept as infallible, and not knowing what to do with that, is also a realistic answer to the question “fear of what?”

Over the Tavern raises important questions about the damage that unthinking adherence to religion can do–and deals with the emotional, spiritual, and physical damage that has been done to each of the characters in varying degrees.

My suspicion is that, even if much of the audience didn’t have the theological language to analyze the play in these terms, many felt this truth.  Spiritual maturity isn’t stronger adherence to what a religious authority says, but about questioning it and moving into a place of greater understanding.  It isn’t about absolute certainty, but about journeying where definitive answers may not be forthcoming.

Perhaps this play–reading it at the minimum, or seeing a production such as the one at the Kavinoky if it is available–should be a prerequisite for those training for ordained ministry in any Christian denomination.  A full and lively discussion of the characters, assumptions, cultural norms (both within the church and outside it) would be helpful to those who aspire to pastoral ministry.  Their doing so would certainly benefit those whose souls might fall under the care of potential ministers.

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