By: Joseph Szalinski
Nineteen-seventy-seven was the year that Buffalo, New York saw a lot of snow. And I’m not just talking about Rick James’ house. The infamous Blizzard of ’77 ravaged the city, shutting it down and claiming a few lives in the process. It’s during this winter calamity that Butler Little Theatre’s latest show, The Last Mass at St. Casimir’s, produced by Karen O’Donnell, takes place. While being the third entry in a semi-autobiographical trilogy of plays by Buffalo playwright, Tom Dudzick, audiences aren’t required to have seen the first two to understand or appreciate the swan song of a saga that traces the trajectory of the Pazinski family as they navigate life and all of its complexities.
Our glimpse into the lives of these pieróg enthusiasts begins with siblings Eddie (Steve Kalina) and Annie (Deanna Sparrow) hobbling into their family’s former tavern as the latter is suffering from an encounter with a lamppost. You know, a pole she isn’t related to. The pair are eventually joined by their brothers George (Matt Leslie) and Rudy (Sam Thinnes), and ultimately the matriarch of the family, their mother, Ellen (Katie Moore).
Everyone has gathered to see off the tavern and attend one final mass at St. Casimir’s before its imminent demolition. It’s almost like a Slavic-American spin on Deliverance’s “one last hurrah” that’s set on Lake Erie instead of the Chattooga River, and without the murder, pig squealing, or inbred banjo players. Thank God. As the storm rages on, our five favorite Polka People find themselves trapped by the snowfall, forced to face hard truths, argue about religion, and handle some big news. All dealt with splendidly by a compelling quintet. The cast is rounded out by a handful of voiceover roles heard via the Pazinski’s radio, performed by Disco Jake, Bob Cupp, Tyler Friel, Ryan Saeler, Jay Kline, Bob Dandoy, and director Jerry Johnston.
Deanna Sparrow is fantastic as Annie, the sole Pazinski sister. She masterfully demonstrates her comfortability slipping into character. Oscillating between comedic moments and dramatic ones, Sparrow’s turn as Annie is both riotous and raw.
Steve Kalina is terrific as Eddie, a veteran with a passion for art who isn’t Bob Ross. He embodies someone who’s tough and tortured, a balance brilliantly brought to the stage.
Sam Thinnes charms and occasionally annoys as Rudy, the witty youngest brother of a Polish family who is skeptical about faith and aspires to be a writer, all the while cracking insensitive jokes. Yeah, totally not relatable at all…haha…far more than the playwright’s self-insert, Rudy symbolizes a rejection of the derivative development that shackles his siblings yet is spackled with echoes of a way of life he’s desperate to deviate from. Thinnes’ performance is wonderful and perfectly demonstrates his capability as an actor.
Matt Leslie delights as George, or Georgie as he’s called. His rendition of the character avoids caricaturizing someone facing mental illness, and instead provides plenty of depth equally bottomless as Georgie’s stomach. Despite having less variety in dialogue than his castmates, his performance is still powerful, due largely to his layered physicality.
Katie Moore is a joy to watch as Ellen. A character whose blend of stubbornness and being a source of comfort and sober judgement, is executed effortlessly.
The play’s sixth character comes in the form of the tavern itself. Being a place so instrumental in the upbringing of the Pazinski children, Chet’s Bar and Grill, named after their late father, is as much of a relative as any of the other family members who are merely mentioned and not featured onstage. For as cold as the scene is outside the windows of the closed establishment, there is a warmth that exists within its walls. It feels familiar. Even to those who’ve never ventured to Western New York or were alive during disco’s heyday. Chet’s is a place that we wouldn’t mind being trapped in ourselves, provided there’s plenty of Coca-Cola and potato chips to help us weather whatever weather that rears its ugly head.
Reflecting on the environment also enables one to acknowledge BLT’s position as a storied staple of the community that houses it. An inviting venue that boasts phenomenal productions, Butler Little Theatre is a pioneering institution in a city that is embracing the arts more and more, particularly live entertainment. The Last Mass of St. Casimir’s is another great show in their 2023-2024 season.
The Last Mass of St. Casimir runs Through December 9th at the Butler Little Theatre, One Howard Street, Butler, PA 16001. For more information, click here.