Playwright Tom Dudzick, whose Over The Tavern and Greetings! have racked up more than three hundred productions between then, is back, and Los Angeles audiences are the lucky beneficiaries of the latest comedic confection from America’s “Catholic Neil Simon” as Burbank’s Colony Theatre presents the West Coast Premiere of Miracle On South Division Street (The Holiday Version).

MIRACLE DIVISION STREET - 1 For all but its epilogue, Miracle has us spending its ninety minutes in “real time” with the Nowaks of Buffalo, New York in the kitchen where matriarch Clara has spent the greater part of her life making “Our Lady’s Miracle Soup. Prepared On Holy Ground,” reputed to have cleared up the rashes, healed the sore throats, and relieved the heartburn of those living in the rundown working class Polish-American neighborhood the Nowaks call home.

At lights up, 30ish middle child Ruth (Karianne Flaathen) has summoned older sister Bev (Meghan Andrews) and younger brother Jimmy (Brian Ibsen) for a family meeting with their widowed mother Clara (Ellen Crawford).

It takes a good while for playwright Dudzick to let Ruth get around to revealing her reason for wanting Ma and her siblings together—and with good reason. He wants us to get to know the Nowaks first.

Garbage truck driver Brian is upset to learn that his would-be actress sister Ruth hasn’t bought the gefilte fish he asked her to pick up for him on her way home. (Gefilte fish, in a Polish Catholic home?) Never mind that, however. He’s got something to show Ruthie, and if it takes her a while to spot the itsy-bitsy diamond, it’s definitely an engagement ring inside the box he’s holding out. Oh, and he’s stayed up late watching The Ten Commandments, which, as he reminds Ruth, is all about the first Passover.

Jimmy thinks his sister’s reason for calling this meeting must have something to do with her skipping mass lately, more specifically that “You’re gonna tell Ma. Finally. About … y’know, you and—You’re gonna tell her. Thank God, it’s about time. No more lying,” and if his words don’t give away his meaning, then a gesture towards Ruth’s not terribly feminine garb does.

MIRACLE DIVISIONS STREET - 3 “Ma” Clara soon arrives down from the attic with her own family meeting in mind. She’s tired of the way her children have been giving “the statue speech” lately, and we soon learn what she’s talking about.

It seems that back in 1943, the Blessed Mother herself appeared to Clara’s father inside his barber shop with a message of peace for the world, inspiring him to have a statue of the Virgin Mary built to commemorate Her visit, a shrine which has continued over the decades to attract folks near and far in search of miracles, proof of which are the coins and “Dear Blessed Mother” notes they’ve left in the shrine’s mail slot. (Clara’s kept the coins, though she assures her progeny that they won’t be the beneficiaries.)

MIRACLE DIVISION STREET - 4 When Bev eventually shows up dressed for an evening of bowling, we find out about her bad luck with men. One ex, a body builder, hightailed it “off to the races” when talk of the family miracle proved just too weird, followed by an “almost priest” who “respects his religion too much. So he bowed out.” That’s why there’ll be no more Catholic Singles Dot Com for Bev. She’s met her latest flame “in the reliable way, in a bar.”

And then Ruth makes her announcement. A New York producer has expressed interest in a one-woman show she’s come up with, a show about “Grandpa and The Blessed Mother and The Miracle”—and Ruth needs her family’s blessing to tell the story. “But,” she adds, “before we all agree, I should tell you that the story I told Derek … is the true story.”

Let the revelations begin!

I must admit to having wondered during the first half of Miracle On South Division Street just where Tom Dudzick was going with all this family fluff, and perhaps even how such a slight slice-of-life comedy made it onto the Colony Theatre season.

Fortunately, the virtue of patience yields multiple rewards as Miracle On South Division Street reveals, not just long buried secrets, but unexpected, stereotype-defying facets of each of its four characters.

MIRACLE DIVISION STREET - 2 The changes Dudzick has made for Miracle’s “Holiday Version” are minor, reflected more in scenic designer Jeff McLaughlin’s Christmassy set than the script itself. That being said, this is one case where the use of “Holiday” rather than “Christmas” is an appropriate one, since if ever there were a holiday play that both Christians and Jews could enjoy in equal measure, Dudzick has written just such a play, though non-believers will have an equally fine time as church-or-temple-goers. And hey, while we’re on the subject of diversity, Miracle On South Division Street merits GLAAD award consideration as well.

Director Brian Shnipper has just the right deft touch make Miracle the audience-pleasing treat that it is, and in Crawford’s gritty family matron, Ibsen’s affable youngest sibling, Flaathen’s ballsy but vulnerable middle child, and Andrews tough-talking, beer-chugging older daughter, he is blessed with a couldn’t-be-better cast, each of whom gets to reveal unforeseen sides to his or her character.

MIRACLE DIVISION STREET - 5 Scenic designer McLaughlin gives us a Nowak family kitchen so authentic looking down to its kitschy wallpaper, Formica counters, and decades-old dinette table-and-chair set that we believe it’s been lived in since before WWII, with properties design/set-dressing team MacAndME supplying an abundance of family knickknacks, small appliances (an ancient roll-around vacuum cleaner in particular), and enough ingredients to prepare a meal. Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes reflect precisely the clothing choices these Buffalonians would have made, with special snaps for Clara’s plaid, ruffled apron. Jared A. Sayeg’s expert lighting and Drew Dalzell’s first-rate sound design complete the all-around excellent design package.

Leesa Freed is stage manager, Robert T. Kyle technical director, and Jaime Gray assistant to the director.

At first glance, Miracle On South Division Street might not seem edgy enough to attract audiences outside the Colony’s subscriber demographic, but stick around for those revelations and the family’s reactions to them and younger, hipper theatergoers may find themselves pleasantly surprised. And you don’t have to like holiday plays to enjoy this zesty November-December treat.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
November 9, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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