Thursday, June 20, 2013
Theater review: Secrets, secrets are no fun unless you’re watching Miracle on South Division Street
It's a comedic case of expecting the unexpected.
FORT WORTH Tom Dudzick is one of the few playwrights today who actually makes a living writing plays, and getting them produced. Called by some the “Catholic Neil Simon,” Mr. Dudzick has written a long list of audience pleasing shows and has a successful history with Circle Theatre. Miracle on South Division Street is both their latest outing and, judging from audience reaction opening night, another crowd pleaser, sure to make their subscribers happy.
The play is based on a local Buffalo, New York legend that recounts the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a barbershop in Mr. Dudzick’s old neighborhood. In the play, we discover that Clara Nowak’s father built a 20-foot shrine to the Blessed Mother in front of his shop in 1943 after she appeared to him in a vision. Despite the changes in the neighborhood, Clara has kept the statue maintained for all these passing years. Things, however, have also changed in the family. Her daughter has quit attending Mass, her son is dating a Jewish girl, and unexpected news about a deathbed confession is casting doubts on the family legend. Hilarity ensues.
Each of the actors makes a strong first impression, establishing character traits and familial habits immediately. You can believe this is a close knit family of Polish-Americans living and working in Buffalo. They may bicker and fight, but you never doubt the love and affection they feel for one another. A clever device to get the exposition out of the way early is to have the mother insist that her son repeat the speech he delivers about the shrine to the tourists with more feeling and emotion. We learn the facts and get a comic bit at the same time.
Jennifer Engler as Ruth, the middle child, pushes the action of the play. She has an objective, and she works hard to achieve it. She’s has earth shaking news she’s got to share and it’s got to be now. Ms. Engler keeps the energy flowing as bit by bit she delivers the reason she’s called them together.
One of the weaknesses of the script, I believe, is that we keep getting, “There’s just one more thing” from her character. While each new revelation does build the situation -– and the comic reactions –- they seem contrived just for that effect. She delivers these contrivances well however, and her emotional moments late in the play are truly touching. Engler has a finely layered performance and perhaps it is the fault of the script that early on she seems somewhat relaxed to have such devastating information.
Curtis Raymond Shideler, as son Jimmy, youngest in the family, has a secret of his own that he shares with Ruth but doesn’t know how to share with his mother and oldest sister Beverly. His performance is real and funny and captures the “youngest in the family” vibe in their relationships. He and Engler share looks and reactions behind their mother’s back and bounce off each other in a truly believable way. His reactions to the secrets Ruth reveals are appropriately mixed. I also enjoyed his physicality in the role and thought his looseness worked well.
As Clara, the mother of this clan, Deborah Brown looks and assumes the role easily and comfortably. An absolutely devout, no-questions-asked Catholic, she offers much of the humor throughout the evening and carries it off with skill and assurance. At first she seems to be working a little too hard on the comedy, but soon settles down into a believable, breathing character. It is her burden as an actress to have to react the most strongly to each new bit of horror that Ruth reveals. She manages to build each to match the building surprises. Not so easy to pull off. Her heart-felt talks with Ruth toward the end of the play are truly moving and involving.
Lynn Blackburn comes in with a whirlwind of energy, establishing herself as to who Beverly Nowak is and her position as oldest child in this family. Her physical fights and chases with her brother are funny and family interactions bring an “oh yeah, I’ve been there!” from the audience. She gets one of the bigger laughs of the evening with, “It isn’t supposed to make sense – it’s religion!” Her assurance and capability on stage are a delight to watch.
In all, the actors manage to pull off the series of disclosures with a believability that isn’t always present in the script. It is to their credit and that of director Harry Parker that we can suspend our disbelief and buy into this story. Mr. Parker stages his four actors around the space in a mostly believable manner, placing each in a prominent spot for their big moments and keeping the action moving along briskly. His staging and guidance of the actors through the emotional moments brings a welcome touch of reality to what could have been a sitcom-like series of set-ups and one-liners.
Occasionally, the movement seems arbitrary, partly because there is so much empty space on stage, but it is not distracting.
Clare Floyd DeVries set is a suitably realistic kitchen with all the appliances, fully stocked and functioning. It looks a little too pristine and new to have been a family gathering place for such a long time but it is painted a cheery shade of yellow and provides a kitchen table with four chairs, a special chair for Clara and a counter with a stool for sitting. There is a lot of empty down stage space, but that seems to be dictated by the three-quarter seating of the theater and an effort to work within the sight lines.
Costume designer Meredith Hinton finds suitable attire that you believe as actual character clothing and John Leach’s lighting and David H.M. Lambert’s sound design work nicely to support the mood and atmosphere of the script and the director’s concept.
As Truvey says in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” You’ll find that and plenty more to enjoy in this production. There’s excitement, revelation and enough truisms and thought provoking ideas to please just about everyone. It’s a play about disclosures, re-thinking things you’ve always believed without question, contemplating whether knowing the truth is always better and of course, what it means to be family. If you’re looking for a good evening’s entertainment and ninety minutes of fun and fast-paced skilled presentation, this is a show you won’t want to miss.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
- 15 hilariously-named beers at Fort Worth's Untapped festival
- Theater review: All’s Well That Ends Well provides both light-hearted comedy and thoughtful reflection
- Theater review: Into the Woods creatively interprets childhood tales
- Theater review: Bank Job takes toilet humor literally
- Theater review: As You Like It by Stolen Shakespeare Guild is foolish and fun