Miracle on South Division Street, by Tom Dudzick. Directed by Cathy Lee Visscher. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Hell is like reading Moby-Dick out loud."
Sam Reilly, Meg Dooley; photo Cindy Smith
The Nowak family from Buffalo, NY are about as ordinary as folks can be - for folks who live with a historic miracle. Clara Nowak's father was visited in his barber shop by the Virgin Mary and this episode has touched the lives of his descendants including Clara's three children Jimmy, Ruthie, and Beverly. The patriarch commissioned a statue to commemorate the miracle and it graces the street where they live; it is visited by many people and several small miracles have been attributed to it. But on this particular day daughter Ruth has called a family meeting to discuss the future of the statue and its value. It is a meeting that changes everything.
Tom Dudzick's play is part of a trilogy he has written about the Polish-American residents of Buffalo. At its start it seems to be just another ordinary look at a culture, Roman-Catholic and Polish, not very distinguishable from other plays. But the author ultimately takes us to places we don't see on any map: not of the streets, not of the heart. To begin with son Jimmy has been bowling with a Jewish girl and that fact alone upsets the family. Daughter Ruth, an aspiring actress has decided to write a play for herself about the statue. Daughter Beverly is intent on a bowling career, or at least a bowling obsession which removes her from all other realities.
What really removes this production from the ordinary, though, is the extraordinary cast. The Ghent Playhouse has gathered four wonderful actors to bring the Nowak clan to vivid life.
Meg Dooley plays Clara whose personal history, once seen in its entirety as clean and clear, becomes a mystery to be solved by her own dead mother, a mystery related only to Ruthie. Dooley is absolute perfection in the role. She is absolute in her convictions about life, religion, art and love. She is supporting of her children, even when she disagrees with them. She is rigid until she bends and she bends with the prevailing winds as only a person strong in her beliefs could be under strange circumstances. Dooley's Clara is obsessively loving under her own conditions. She is almost a terror in her resolute certainty. Faced with the oddness of the situation with which she is presented, she makes remarkable shifts into the final scene of the play turning Clara into the most loving and accepting creature on the planet earth. A bit scary at first she becomes an ideal and we love her for it. Dooley is perhaps the best she has ever been, in this role.
As her daughter Beverly, Christina Harrigan manages to be both snotty and engaging. Her lack of interest in her sister seems so very right until she gets caught up in the intrigue that surrounds her family history. Then Harrigan manages to be fully engaged. almost obsessively so. She plays the role of the misfit to perfection. And so it is somewhat surprising to discover that she is perhaps the most honestly involved character in the play, the closest in many ways to her mother's ways. Harrigan makes no real transitions but is consistent as the play shifts and changes leaving her at the physical epicenter. She is the anchor of the family and she plays that role very well.
Christina Harrigan, Sam Reilly, Sierra Lynch; photo: Cindy Smith
Meg Dooley, Sierra Lynch; photo: Cindy Smith
Sierra Lynch is the quixotic Ruth, the revealer of secrets long held back from her mother, the card-dealer of realities. Ruth is an actress, or would-be actress, who fights for her spot in the sunlight of this family's revelation day. Lynch is wonderful, holding her own with a glowing inner spotlight. She manages to be the person we watch most closely in spite of the strengths of the other women. Dudzick has given her the classic three revelations, three layers of reality, and Lynch holds them in her hands judiciously. We don't see most of them coming and when she pulls out the third the play turns on its heels and spins out of Clara's control. It is a moment beautifully played by both women and Lynch maintains the upper hand with a calm that is delicious to watch.
The "man" of the family is played by Sam Reilly who is so believable, so utterly real in the role, that if his nickname isn't about to become Jimmy I won't understand it. Often funny on the Ghent stage this time around he is the reality-rock. His line delivery is exact and exactly right. His physicality is utterly appropriate to the role. When he transforms from annoyed to charming he is truly charming, not actory. When his own secrets are revealed they are displayed with a fervor that is engaging. If it wasn't clear that Dooley was the star, that Lynch was the new favorite, it would be Reilly's show. He is just that good in this part.
Cathy Lee Visscher is both director and designer of the show. She clearly understands the circumstances in which this family exists. Her set is a perfect framework for the play's people and activities. Her work as director in this case is even clearer and cleaner than her set. She has maneuvered her people into and out of physical closeness that sings honestly about who they are to one another. She has clearly worked with all four actors to give resonance to their characters. The final work is a triumph (especially in a winter with time limited by horrible snow storms).
For a play I've never heard of to end up a new favorite is a delight to me. While a few people may disagree with me, and that's their right, I think this is a show that must be seen.
Miracle on South Division Street plays at the Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY, weekends through February 17. For information and tickets go on line to ghentplayhouse.org or call 1-888-838-3006.