A family “miracle” and a long-kept secret are at the heart of Miracle on South Division Street, the holiday offering from Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables.
That secret can’t be revealed here, lest the comedy be spoiled for those planning to see it, but playwright Tom Dudzick has come up with a doozy, one that gets peeled away in layers, like an onion.
What matters, what makes Miracle get wildly diverse audiences laughing, is how utterly familiar the interactions of the play’s Nowak family seem.
Yes, the widowed matriarch Clara (Elizabeth Dimon) and her grown kids Jimmy (Clay Cartland), Ruth (Deborah L. Sherman) and Beverly (Jeni Hacker) are Polish-American Catholics living in a run-down neighborhood in snowy Buffalo. But the way Mom gently yet firmly bosses her children around, the way the siblings joke and bicker and jockey for attention? Pretty universal, which helps explain why Dudzick’s work is so widely produced.
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Staged in the intimate Balcony Theatre space upstairs at the Miracle Theatre (this is one Miracle nestled inside another), the play unfolds in Mom’s tidy but dated kitchen. Tim Bennett’s set reveals plenty about Clara Nowak, particularly that she’s a devout Catholic who doesn’t believe in throwing out anything if it’s still functional — hence the harvest gold appliances, a toaster and vacuum cleaner she’s had since the kids were little, and neatly displayed knickknacks accumulated over a lifetime.
What has made the Nowaks special in their corner of the world is a vision Clara’s late father had in his adjacent barber shop in 1943. The Virgin Mary appeared to him on Christmas Eve, amid the clippers and talcum powder and after shave, and to commemorate the miracle, he placed a giant statue of the Blessed Mother there. Clara later converted the shop into a soup kitchen, where twice a week she serves the down-and-out, helped by small donations from the folks who come to see the miracle statue.
Now, on another Christmas Eve, Clara’s carefully ordered world is about to be rocked. Jimmy, a cheery garbage man, has plans to propose to his (gasp) Jewish girlfriend. Bev, who is equally fond of beer and bowling, is dating a guy who almost became a priest. And nervous Ruth, an aspiring actress with a nearly empty resumé, has called a family meeting to get everyone’s blessing for her planned one-woman show about the Nowak miracle.
Only problem: That “miracle” really wasn’t one, and Ruth knows it.
Directing a show like Miracle on South Division Street is like breathing for artistic director David Arisco, particularly when he has a cast as comically deft as this one. Hacker comes off as a real Buffalo gal, Cartland as that nice yet annoying brother. Dimon is warmly funny yet always grounded in reality. Sherman plays jittery Ruth like a woman her family habitually ignores, but she’s determined to make this Christmas Eve another one for the Nowak record books.
For my money, Dudzick’s writing in Miracle on South Division Street is more craftsmanlike than inspired. But not every holiday-themed show can be timeless gem like A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. Sometimes, reliable laughs are enough of a gift.
If you go
What: ‘Miracle on South Division Street’ by Tom Dudzick.
Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 28 (additional 2 p.m. show Dec. 10).
Cost: $53 Friday-Saturday, $45 other shows (10 percent off for seniors, $15 student rush tickets, excluding Saturday-Sunday).
Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.