J. A. Di Bello's Review of Miracle on South Division Street

Have you ever been to Buffalo?  This writer’s been there and although it was many years ago, the memory remains strong.  It is not generally considered to be the garden spot of New York State, but on Friday night at the Shadowland Stages in Ellenville, Tom Dudzick with the accomplished directorial hand of Brendan Burke presented the hilarious and heartwarming saga of a first generation American family’s search for identity and purpose. Their efforts bestowed on the City of Buffalo, a deep and and earnest radiance.

The stage at Shadowland Stages’ theatre is open, allowing an audience to soak-in and digest an interesting set, cleverly designed by James Valentin.  Miracle on South Division Street is a comedy of significance written by Tom Dudzick.  It’s set in Tom’s old neighborhood. The beginning of the twenty-first century is well underway, but the kitchen remains stuck somewhere in the 1950s.  It is here in the kitchen of the Nowack family that the opening night audience begins to learn of the family’s importance and place of significance in this, a run down section of East Buffalo.   

There’s a legend on South Division Street about an old barber, a Polish immigrant, who was fortunate enough to arrive on American shores in 1942.  Shortly after establishing a home and barbershop on South Division Street, a miracle occurred in his modest shop.  The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared and requested the people of South Division Street and Buffalo pray for harmony and world peace.

To acknowledge the visit and the advocacy of world peace not to mention the honor of a visitation on the barber’s family, the Nowack family. Papa Nowack arranges for a statue, a virtual shrine to the Virgin Mary, to be erected in front of his humble little barber shop.

Fast forward to the Shadowland stage and the Nowack family to the twenty-first century where the family’s kitchen remains, a survivor of time, blight and unban renewal.  Also surviving is the memorial erected to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary’s visit.

The daughter of the deceased courageous barber, Clara, is now the mom of three grown children.  She, sensitively portrayed by Jodi McClintock, and the children are held together by Clara’s binding, unfaltering faith in the circumstances of the miracle and the family’s obligation to insure its continued existence.  In the now defunct barbershop, Clara has fabricated a soup kitchen of sorts and dutifully makes “prepared-on-holy ground” soups for the neighborhood’s poor.

 It’s the children who, understandably, provide the complication as the plot and drama of this cleverly woven play unfurl. Dan Mian the youngest brings to life Jimmy a vibrant and hard-working son as he works for the city’s Department of Sanitation.  To sustain Mom’s control, he’s apparently on 24-7 call to repair faulty, and in fact abused, appliances in his mother’s house. Fortunately, he’s in love but is hesitant to inform Mom that he is about to propose to a woman who is not a devout Catholic. 

There is also Beverly, she’s Mom’s greatest ally, an avid supporter of her mom’s mission to enhance and especially maintain the family’s notoriety.  She as one of two sisters is also an avid bowler, a.k.a. alley rat, and is employed as a ketchup bottler.  She’s what in today’s vernacular is referred to as “wacked,” a good girl, but just a tad on the bawdy side.  Kathy McCafferty has the honor of portraying Beverly. “Honor,” because the character of Beverly is the perfect vehicle for the diversified talents of Kathy. Her timing and ability to sustain the interaction between characters is the element that makes comedy work.  And in this case she achieves that necessity precisely and with uncompromising confidence. 

Susan Slotoroff depicts Ruth, the second daughter.  Aside from the mother, and of course the Virgin Mary, Ruth is the play.  She carries the furled flag of the “real story” about gran’pa Nowack.   It all begins to unfold when she first announces her intention to write and deliver her own story of the Virgin. She begins to unleash a flurry of revelations, with each turn causing turmoil and outrageous hilarity. At one point, after a quick exit, she suddenly returns with the another announcement.  It’s almost a “But wait!  There’s more!!”

This play by Tom Dudzick is full of laughs and knee-slappers accompanied by comments on ethnic stereo types, while bringing to the surface serious characteristics of the human condition.  Clara and her father, the barber, were the immigrants and more than likely given the time and circumstances were considered war-time refugees.  They relied on their perceived fame and purpose as it was represented by the shrine to the Virgin.  Dudzick’s play disguises with humor what it means to have a purpose, to know who you are.  With the rapid fire revelations Clara, the mother, sits emotionally exhausted and exclaims “I don’t know who I am anymore!”  

Miracle on South Division Street is a theatrical event not to be missed.  Its relevancy on several intertwined levels is cause for entertainment and contemplation.  The play will run through August 7.  Tickets and details are available on the theatre’s web-site, www.shadowlandstages.org or through an accommodating box office at 845-647-5511.

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