Most families have a few skeletons in the closet, but the Nowaks of Buffalo, N.Y., may qualify for the Guinness World Record in that category.
All of their long-hidden secrets are brought into the light of day with surprising humor in Circle Theatre’s crackerjack production of Miracle on South Division Street, which opened last week.
The mother and three offspring of the Nowak family don’t really have a lot. The matriarch, Clara (Deborah Brown), is a weary widow. Son Jimmy (Curtis Raymond Shideler) is a garbageman. Beverly (Lynn Blackburn) works an assembly-line job and spends her free time at the bowling alley. And Ruth (Jennifer Engler) is an aspiring writer who seems to be a bit adrift.
But what they do have is their shrine of the Blessed Virgin — a statue commissioned by Clara’s father not long after he arrived in America from Poland during World War II. The story goes that he had the 20-foot-tall shrine built after seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary in his barbershop. It serves as a minor roadside attraction for tourists who stop by to hear one of the family members tell the story, but it is a major cornerstone of the family’s history and current identity.
So when Ruth blindsides her mother and siblings with a revised view of events surrounding the shrine, it does not go down well.
This comedy by Tom Dudzick is overflowing with crisp dialogue delivered by characters delineated with incredibly economic clarity. Their exchanges snap, crackle and pop, with often hysterical results.
After seeing this production, it is hard to imagine any cast that could do more with the material than this one. Engler has to do most of the heavy lifting here. She does a great job of staying locked into her character while also directing the emotional traffic around her. Brown is just stellar as the mother, always finding exactly the right pitch and moment for everything she does. Shideler is appropriately bemused as he mostly watches his fellow family members fall apart around him. Blackburn is priceless as the less sophisticated of the sisters.
Director Harry Parker, who heads the theater department at TCU (where Engler also teaches), has staged several shows at Circle and always uses the space well. But he has never done so as artfully as he does here, turning an inherently talky piece into a whirlwind of constant motion that never lets go of the audience’s eyes and ears.
The only problem with this show is that the script is a bit overloaded. Far too many revelations are crammed into its tidy, 90-minute span. Also, there is one semi-surprise at the very end that feels tacked on and unnecessary. You really have to be willing to suspend disbelief and accept the plot points without question.
But this fine cast makes that task easy for you. Although it manages a few poignant moments, and raises a few big questions, this blessed comedy largely lives for laughs and makes for an ideal bit of midsummer-night entertainment.