At the heart of any great play is quality storytelling, and Tom Dudzick’s Miracle on South Division Street delivers. In choosing to show this play alongside A. R. Gurney’s Family Furniture, White Heron Theatre Company juxtaposes the lower-middle class normalcy of Dudzick with the well-heeled waspishness of Gurney.
We begin Miracle in a kitchen that may have once been fashionable, but hasn’t been updated in decades. The yellowed wallpaper is speckled with brass fish-shaped wall hangings, among other tchotchkes indicative of a lifetime of bargain shopping. There is not enough cabinet space to house the teakettle, which consequently remains on the stove. The blender’s home is atop a fridge stocked with Pabst Blue Ribbon, beer of the modern undergraduate. Set designers Michael Kopko and Lynne Bolton have avoided Architectural Digest perfection and planted us in a real American kitchen. The characters are as ordinary as the set; it’s their story that is unusual.
The Nowak family experienced a miracle. Well, the late Grandpa Nowak did, back in 1942. After the Virgin Mary appeared to the Polish immigrant in his barbershop, Grandpa Nowak erected a backyard shrine in the Blessed Virgin’s likeness, and Catholics from near and far have been frequenting the statue ever since. Grandpa Nowak’s daughter Clara, now in her 70s, has attached herself like a barnacle to her father’s tale, and takes great care to maintain the holy ground. Her three adult children have joined her in this endeavor and, like tour guides, have memorized an illustrative speech for the statue’s visitors. Matriarch Clara, in her ratty pink slippers and floral apron, rules a roost that consists of her son Jimmy and daughters Ruth and Beverly. Each of the four Nowaks has their own reason for giving credence to the shrine. When a tremendous family secret is unearthed, the Nowaks must rethink not only their belief in a backyard miracle, but their entire worldview.
Peggy Cosgrave is the actor who originated the role of Clara at the Penguin Theater in Stony Point, NY in 2012 and has reprised it several times since. Cosgrave, who is no stranger to Broadway, is so thoroughly immersed in her role that it seems even she believes she is Clara Nowak. Clara’s Catholicism permeates every aspect of her life, to a fault (which specifically, is anti-Semitism). To Clara, the shrine is not only a way to honor her god, but also to maintain her father’s legacy. Playwright Tom Dudzick praises Cosgrave’s rendering of his Polish-American matriarch: “Oh, it’s right on the money,” he says. “I grew up with these types of women. They didn’t come from the old country but seemed as if they still had one foot in it. Peggy just portrayed that beautifully.”
Sassy bleach-blond Beverly (LeeAnne Hutchinson) bounces onstage in big hoop earrings and bright red sweatpants that are as loud as their wearer. Despite her outward inclination for exoticism, Beverly literally slams a door in the face of change. She makes an honest living in a condiment bottling plant, and refuses to extend her dating pool beyond the fold of the Catholic faith. Beverly seems to believe that as long as the shrine is intact, she herself remains righteous. Hutchinson is as convincing as Beverly as she is the WASPy Claire in WHTC’s production of Family Furniture.
Grubby hand towel in his back pocket and scuffed work boots on his feet, Jimmy Nowak (Conan McCarty) has a dirty job and makes no apologies for it. A garbage man by day, he’s also proud to put his handyman skills to work when his mom’s household items break. Jimmy is a simple guy who thrives when he knows his place in the world, and the shrine serves as a meaningful post. McCarty’s heavily dramatic expressions and booming voice lend themselves to Jimmy’s teasing sarcasm.
Though all the characters undergo changes by the end of the play, it is aspiring actor Ruth (Brandy Zarle) who experiences the most dynamic arc. In the beginning of the play, she is uptight as she calls a family meeting. Yes, she has some upsetting news but it seems she is just plain uncomfortable around her mother. But by the end of the show, Ruth has opened herself up to her family in a way she didn’t expect she could. Zarle is an actor playing an actor, which is surely harder than she makes it look. Her enunciation and graceful, elongated movements enhance her character’s place as the refined one, the ambitious one. For Ruth, even if she is no longer a mass-going Catholic, the shrine means hope for a brighter future.
The cast members are all very much telling the same story, thanks to cohesive direction by Lynne Bolton. There is a large amount of movement by the actors, but the director had her ducks in a row and swimming to all the right spots onstage. Bolton’s blocking was very intentional but still felt real. I have seen a handful of Bolton’s plays over the years, and Miracle showcases her best directing work yet.
Of course, no cast or director can pull off a great show without a great script. Playwright Tom Dudzick says, “The shrine in this story is based on an actual statue that is in my old Buffalo neighborhood. It’s 20 feet tall, right next to what was once a barbershop. Legend had it that the Blessed Mother herself appeared to this barber. When we kids were growing up there, it didn’t strike us as odd that the Blessed Mother was in a mid-calf dress with hair flowing down to her shoulders. So I just made up a story to go along with the statue.”
The intention behind each of Dudzick’s plays is largely the same: “I just want to tell a funny story,” the playwright says. With its single room set and rising mountain of one-liners, Miracle is stylistically evocative of the situational comedy. But unlike a 20-minute sitcom, Miracle is not a show that can be watched sporadically as you cook dinner; it is linear and thematically rich. It is also denser than it may seem on the surface; lines in the first half are for character establishment, and few of them could be omitted from Miracle without stealing a slice from the story. In just over one hour, Miracle tells a beginning-to-end tale that beckons us to ponder how we handle major shifts in our beliefs, and why we sometimes hang so tightly onto what we are fed as truth. It makes you want to latch onto what matters and release that which does not. In this world, who doesn’t need a warm serving of feel-good every now and again?
Miracle on South Division Street plays until August 30 under the tent at 5 North Water Street. It runs 75 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $42.50 at www.whiteherontheatre.org. See website for show dates.