Fort Worth — Is there an author in the audience? On the opening night of King O’ The Moon at Circle Theatre the answer was a surprising “Yes!”
Playwright Tom Dudzick was in the back row, watching the first official performance of his sixth play to run at Circle in the last dozen years. And the night quickly took on the feel of a reunion: a dozen or more actors from the casts of those six plays were in the audience too.
King O’ The Moon, in fact, completes a circle for Circle Theatre, by taking us back to the family that started it all: the Pazinskis of Buffalo, New York: Polish-American, working class, Catholic, and proud owners of Chet’s Bar & Grill, a neighborhood tavern. Geez, they’re a noisy bunch—but it’s good to see them again.
We met this very American family first in the 1950s in Over the Tavern (Circle 2005) and in the 1970s for The Last Dance at St. Casimir’s (Circle 2007). But somehow (except for a staged reading) Circle didn’t get around to King O’ the Moon, the second play of the trilogy, until now. And it tells a part of the story we’ve been waiting to hear: what happened to the Pazinskis in the Sixties?
You needn’t have seen the other plays to enjoy the rowdy family give-and-take of Moon and its true-to-life blend of comedy and tears—but knowing what happened to the Pazinskis “before and after” adds to our emotional connection with this middle part of the story.
In the 1959 of Over the Tavern, the Pazinskis have a house full of teenagers—three sons and a daughter. Mom Ellen is busy but nurturing (and a good referee); Dad is growling and angry; and they seem to live completely in the world of Catholic church and school life, with priests and nuns who can be mentors and allies…or drive you crazy. At the after-show talkback, when Tom Dudzick pulled a clicker from his pocket (if you don’t know what it is, you didn’t go to Catholic school), the familiar sound—a sharp click-click—made plenty of grown girls and boys in the audience want to fall into two straight lines and head for morning mass.
In The Last Dance at St. Casimir’s, set in the late 1970s, the grown-up Pazinski kids and their mom come together for one last time before the tavern is sold. Someone’s in New York, someone’s survived Vietnam, and all are as opinionated as ever.
But now it’s 1969, smack in the middle of the story—and practically nobody’s idea of a Very Good Year. Assassinations, Vietnam, peace marches, civil rights, church reforms: everyone and everything is in flux, changing, shifting, testing what we believe.
And so it goes for the Pazinskis, most of them in a pickle of one kind or another—and heading in new directions they aren’t very sure about. But something—in fact, quite a few somethings—need to change. “Our hearts aren’t in it,” says a sister to a brother about the lives they each lead. “And hearts tell the truth.” Only Georgie, the intellectually disabled youngest brother, seems content with his life—though even he has to weather some storms.
Julienne Greer returns to play mother Ellen Pazinski for the third time, and she’s the show’s anchor. Her Ellen is steady and smart, a woman who raised four difficult children and doesn’t think life can surprise her. She’s a widow now, and runs the tavern with help from her husband’s best friend. David H.M. Lambert’s Walter is the ultimate nice guy, touching and funny in his attempts to get closer to Ellen and her prickly kids.
Chris Rothbauer as oldest son Eddie is muscular and convincing as a guy’s guy facing all the “landmark” events at once, from war to fatherhood. In Alexandria Fazzari’s portrait of Eddie’s wife Maureen—the not-so-good girl of Tavern days—we see a woman coming into her own as a wife, mother and sister. She’ll be that family’s anchor one day, we can tell.
Diana Bloxom Barbaro also played sister Annie in Tavern, and it’s nice to watch her entirely believable performance as the older version of this edgy, awkward girl. Her Annie is still not really comfortable in her skin—and though she plays the affluent wife with style, there are cracks in the smooth surface.
Kyle Montgomery as the disabled Georgie does a fine job in a very tricky role—though Dudzick’s thoughtful writing gives him plenty to work with. Georgie’s life may look small, but he lives large and seems tuned into (and often amused by) what’s happening in the family. Dudzick is brave enough to write Georgie (based on his own brother with Down syndrome) as a genuinely funny character—as in all the plays, the other Pazinskis clearly love him—and Montgomery makes it OK for us to laugh at and with this little guy who makes a joyful noise whenever he wants to.
Jacob Oderberg is Rudy, still the thinker of the family (he was Sister Clarissa’s sparring partner all through school), and studying to be a priest only seems to have made his truth-seeking and doubts loom larger. Oderberg plays him as an exposed nerve, wound so tight in his principles that we feel for him…and think he’s pretty funny as well.
Nothing about the sets or costumes screams for attention, but that’s as it should be. This is an ordinary family in a drab outdoor space—and both Ryan Matthieu Smith’s period ‘60s costumes (Ellen’s workaday dresses are especially good) and Clare Floyd DeVries’ backyard (everything needs a coat of paint) are just right. The not-so-high treehouse takes a bit of getting used to (actors “climb” but never get more than a few feet off the ground), but the necessary illusion seems to work.
Director Harry Parker can be proud of his long director’s relationship with these plays. Dudzick’s humor, alternately rowdy and gentle, takes some careful handling—and Parker has the touch for it. It’s vital that the family not head straight over the top and into sit-com land, and he seems able to keep this cast (and those of the earlier plays) feeling like real people. They’re funny and sometimes odd—but they aren’t cartoons.
Dudzick noted that the family of Over the Tavern was the most like his own; in the other two plays, he moved away from autobiography and let imagination fly. But that means…there could be more Pazinski stories, right? Maybe one for the ‘90s…or now.
Your audience awaits, Mr. D.