“Meet the Nowak family, a lovable clan of dysfunctional Polish-American adults on the East Side of post-industrial Buffalo.” It sounds like the setting for a sitcom, but it’s actually Clague Playhouse’s current comedic production of “Miracle on South Division Street,” playing now through April 3, 2016.
Written by Tom Dudzick and directed by Rob Gibb, the 90-minute play is full of little zingers and big revelations that make this show enjoyable for believers and cynics alike.
The Nowaks were “chosen” back in 1942 when Jimmy, Ruth and Beverly’s grandfather had a “vision” of the Virgin Mary in his Buffalo barbershop. He had a statue created in honor of the Blessed Mother, which he enshrined near the shop. Their mother Clara has spent decades preserving the awe and wonder of her father’s lovingly-built 17-foot-tall monument, inviting all to hear their story.
The barbershop is now a soup kitchen, with soup prepared “on holy ground,” and there’s a convenient donation box by the Mary shrine for those who wish to pray to the Holy Virgin in their travels down Division Street.
According to local lore, rashes have cleared, illnesses have been healed, and more through prayers to the statue. However, the Mary phenomenon has never been recognized by the Catholic church as a legitimate miracle. Some neighbors believe in the hype, others think the Nowaks are just crazy.
Stories get passed through generations, and over the years the story of the Blessed Virgin vision has been propagated by Clara with fervor. Her kids, though, are a bit less enthusiastic. It’s clear from the eye rolling and from the lack of enthusiasm for the by-rote public speeches that the statue is not a passion of the Nowak offspring.
The grown-up Nowak children now have lives and stories of their own. Ruthie has big news about her career in the arts, and is also trying to prevent her mother from learning she’s stopped going to church. Jimmy has fallen in love with a Jewish girl, but can’t figure out how to tell his loved ones. And Beverly – she’s an avid bowler with a beer and an opinion about everything.
During a meeting at Clara’s, the gang gels together as a quarreling quartet to bring the bickering of an average family to life. They poke, they prod, they harass each other. Apparently noon is too early for pepperoni, but it’s fine for alcohol. Sports and sarcasm are sacred, but the theater is a topic of triteness. Babka is the pastry of the neighborhood, and religion isn’t supposed to make sense.
Amidst the squabbling, one of the siblings reveals a surprise confession given from the deathbed of their late grandmother. Suddenly, the pearly gates of truth open up to reveal a shift in the view of the Nowak legacy forever.
The likeable cast includes Jeff Bartholomew as Jimmy, Margy Haas as Clara, Debbie Jenkins as Ruth, and Allison Naso as Beverly. The well-timed pacing of their arguments, along with subtle reactions and witty delivery makes the group believable. Their ups and downs, their love and disdain, their hopes and fears are all relatable and loveable.
An epilogue near the end of the show nicely wraps up all of the juicy loose ends, providing some more surprises about “what happens next.” But no spoilers will be given here! You’ll have to go see the actors playing a sarcastic Clara, brotherly Jimmy, strong-willed Beverly, and creative Ruth work their magic for yourself.
Although “Miracle…” is no Shakespearian masterpiece, it is definitely an enjoyable experience. The cozy Clague space is set up like a small-town kitchen, sufficiently detailed by designer Ron Newell, with lighting by Lance Switzer. The costume designed by Candace Lipton has an appropriate modern, working-class feel. The multitude of props by Maggie Swor, Bernice Bolek and Gig Giauque are prolific, and sound designed by Charles Hargrave is fitting to the ambiance.
All in all, it’s fun, it’s fresh, it’s family. Go see “Miracle on South Division Street” – you’ll not be disappointed, AND you’ll be inspired to have some Babka while digging up your own family secrets.
“Miracle on South Division Street” runs through April 3. Tickets are $16 for adults, $15 for seniors (60+), and $10 for students (with valid ID). More information is available by visiting www.clagueplayhouse.org, or by calling the box office at 440-331-0403 Wednesday through Saturday from 1:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m.
Update 03/13/16 @ 11:40pm – A change was made to the original review, which now includes mention of the presence of an Epilogue near the show’s end.