Saturday, December 16, 2017
Stage

Review: 'Miracle on South Division Street' brings tastes of home

This is kind of a personal note, but it can't be avoided.

Just a few minutes into Miracle on South Division Street at A Simple Theatre, and I was all, "Oh, man. Oh, Jesus. Yes. Oh, no."

If you happen to spring from a working-class Polish Catholic family of the north, you will be making similar overtures in your seat, clasping your head and trying to figure out the last time you went to Mass.

My family is from Cleveland, and the Nowak family in the play is from Buffalo, but that's a small difference when characters start throwing around words like "dupa" and "kolaczki" and carving up pork and cheese for a family meeting in the kitchen covered in holy art (the polished set by Scott Cooper feels like anyone's home).

Now, I wager these don't have to be your exact roots to relate to Miracle on South Division Street. Most everyone has an elder who wishes the wayward children were more morally upright and supportive of the family heritage, whatever that may be.

Here, the heritage goes thusly:

One night in 1942, the Blessed Mother appeared to the family patriarch in a vision, instructing him to build a 17-foot high statue in her likeness at his barber shop.

Present day, the statue has become a local monument where people deposit donations. And it holds the Nowak family together, making them believe they are special and chosen by God.

Ruth Nowak (warmly played by Georgia Mallory Guy) is the adult daughter with a lifestyle she knows won't please her Mass-going mother. She wants to take the story public via a one-woman play. But Ruth wants to tell the true story of the statue, which doesn't exactly look like the Virgin Mary if everyone is being honest. And the truth is going to hurt.

Sounds heavy? It's not. It's funny and light, with just enough heart to give it some chew. The lines are rapid and wry, like when Ruth suggests New York City has a certain energy.

"We ain't got energy here?" says her mother, Clara. "How you think I cooked that babka, with a match?"

Bonnie Agan plays Clara like a cross between Meryl Streep and Maxine from the Hallmark cards. She manages the role without coming off like a caricature, an exhausted mother separating quarreling children well into adulthood.

Becca McCoy grabs the rest of the comic attention as bowling enthusiast Beverly, who wears a red track suit with her name in rhinestones. McCoy, who recently came off a run of Disenchanted at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, is a comic whiz with saucer eyeballs that shoot to the back row.

Her character is brash and loud and does not approve of her sister's meddling, nor her brother's Jewish girlfriend. Jimmy (Stephen Ray) wants to propose to the Silverstein girl, but doesn't know how to tell his family.

That leads to some of the problems with the show, directed by A Simple Theatre's artistic director, Gavin Hawk. It toes the line between relatable cultural jokes and ethnic and religious stereotypes. Most are laughable, but some are cringeworthy (Jewish people talking with their hands).

The main problem, though, comes from the momentum of the script by Tom Dudzick. Miracle on South Division Street is the kind of play that, with more editing, could be presented in a tight, bright package without an intermission.

Instead, about 75 percent of it takes place in a single scene, until suddenly we're thrust into a scene change that seems to come out of nowhere. Several people in the crowd started tentatively clapping, wondering if the play was done then, but it wasn't.

And the ending is tied up way too neatly, attempting to definitively answer a pretty complicated existential question: Is it always best to know the truth, even if it hurts the ones you love?

Who can tell? That said, you'll probably leave Miracle on South Division Street feeling generally positive, laughing about your own family back home. And you might decide it's time to give your mother a call.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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