Director/Sound Designer – Melanie A. Mason
Set Designer – Tony Curtis
Lighting Designer – Juan Gonzalez
Costume Designer – Ryan Matthieu Smith
Properties Designer – Cathy Pritchett
Clara Nowak – Judy Keith
Beverly Nowak – Kelly Norman
Ruth Nowak – Tracie Foster
Jimmy Nowak – Tyler Cochran
Reviewed Performance 10/24/2014
Reviewed by Larry Ukolowicz, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Little did they know, but Theatre Arlington took me home with their production of Miracle on South Division Street. I lived on the east side of Buffalo, NY, off of Clinton Street in the Polish district, from the ages of thirteen to twenty, right where this play takes place. The verbal hard ‘A’ accent from the hood was missing in this production, but the written words were very much in alignment with my memories. Playwright Tom Dudzick incorporates Catholicism in with everyday life in the play and it is also the way I remember the neighborhood. If some people find this show a bit absurd, the characters unbelievable, I would have to back up Dudzick by saying, “I know these people. I lived with them, my family included!”
The premise of the play involves Clara and her three grown kids who have always known they are special. The neighborhood knew of the Nowaks ever since that miraculous night when the Blessed Mother Mary materialized in Grandpa Nowak’s barber shop in 1942. A shrine was erected and adored by the Nowaks and their neighbors until on her death bed, Grandma tells granddaughter Ruth the truth about the statue, and then all hell breaks loose!
The shrine gives the Nowaks their identity and Clara proclaims, “We were selected.” However, with fame comes criticism when the Catholic Church refuses to recognize the miraculous event. The struggling family, living in a deteriorating neighborhood, keeps trudging along, sometimes merrily, sometimes a little defeated. Yet, through Dudzick’s eyes, they survive as best they can. Dudzick made them the east Buffalo poster children for the burned-out. While watching the show, and listening to the characters kvetch, I kept envisioning Cher slapping Nicolas Cage yelling, “Snap out of it”, a possible good remedy for this family.
Throughout the entire show, I felt as if I was watching an episode of All in the Family, Buffalo-style. Unfortunately, Norman Lear put out a better written product. Seventy-five percent of the play happens in one long, tedious scene that could have been corrected with better editing from Dudzick. I waited with baited breath for a diversion, a scene change, something more to happen, and it just didn’t happen. The play fit into the sitcom mold and was mostly a lumbering narrative-driven comedy, which is fine for TV, but not for live theater. Another problem was the cultural jokes along with the ethnic and religious stereotypes. Some were laughable, but some were bordering on cringe-worthy uncomfort. The written play itself lacked luster.
The production at Theatre Arlington also lacked luster. The most exciting part of the blocking was guessing who would sit where during the next five minutes. The characters were not likeable enough for us to care. The cast seemed bored with the whole darn thing.
Director Melanie A. Mason, did not have a good understanding of growing up Polish in Buffalo. The family portrayed in this production was from Texas and in no way represented Polish Americans in Buffalo. Polish people I knew in Buffalo were loud, obnoxious, very physical, rambunctious, beer-guzzling, sinning Catholics who criticized and ostracized anyone who blocked their path. Dudzick, regardless of the writing and editing flaws of the play, wrote the characters exactly as I described.
Daughter Ruth, played by Tracie Foster, is an aspiring actor with an idea for a one-woman show about her grandfather and the vision. When Ruth announces her plan to go public with the story, Clara and Bev go crazy, while Jimmy is pretty open-minded. Ms. Foster gave Ruth a nice warm intensity, and it worked here since the entire show was so subdued. Foster also had a fluttering, nervous energy that was appealing.
Jimmy Nowak is committing a mortal sin, in the eyes of mother Clara, by dating a Jewish girl. This is not kosher in the Polish Catholic world, but Jimmy couldn’t care less about religious differences. He only wants to marry his Jewish girlfriend and have a few beers. Tyler Cochran was perfectly cast as Jimmy. All Jimmy’s characteristics were there, the moodiness, the child-like behavior and the smart-aleck mouth. Mr. Cochran delivered amusing facial expressions and a giddy, exuberant but muted excitement.
Kelly Norman played daughter Bev, a bowling enthusiast who is brash and loud. She does not approve of her sister’s theatrical adventure or her brother’s Jewish girlfriend. Bev is a fun and funny character and Ms. Norman portrayed her well with quick, smart remarks. She played Bev at two speeds - loud and louder. Norman’s performance was the closest to what Dudzick had in mind.
Dudzick created a near-perfect character in Clara, one of comedic and tragic uniqueness that is not only funny but very relatable. She is the saving grace of this work. Clara is a seriously religious and frazzled mother of three nearly-fallen Catholic children, and Judy Keith would have shined had she been able to relax and had a better handle on the dialogue throughout the play. Ms. Keith used plenty of heavy sighs, agitated looks and a few genuflections thrown in to keep Clara secure on her throne as matriarch. But the jumbled lines were a bit laborious and not befitting of her character.
The set was actually the star of the show, Tony Curtis doing a great job. But it didn’t have that lived-in feeling. The wallpaper looked new, the shiny pots all sparkling. The kitchen and all accoutrement had been around since the 70’s so where were the fingerprints, maybe a kitchen door sticking, some floor tiles missing? Also, being a Polish Catholic family, there should have been more representations of Christ other than just two crucifixes, inclusive of plates, statues and other paraphernalia. (In our family, we had drinking glasses with Jesus on them.) Times change, but not for a Polish household in Buffalo. You use everything until it disintegrates.
Costume Designer Ryan Matthieu Smith dressed people appropriately in jeans, blouses, pants and T-shirts. The costumes fit each character perfectly.
Lighting Designer Juan Gonzalez also did a nice job. A minimalistic design, the script did not call for spots or tricky light effects.
Sound designer Melanie A. Mason did an almost perfect job with the preshow and intermission tunes. But I sure would have loved to have heard some Polkas in the mix.
Regardless of my opinion of the written play itself, Theatre Arlington’s production could have been a very funny play if more attention had been paid to the true lifestyle of a Polish-American household in Buffalo, NY. It wasn't big enough. It wasn't loud enough. It wasn’t much of anything. Those who like family light-weight comedies will find enough laughs to sustain. However, this production did successfully make me reminisce and remember my mom, and for that, I am thankful.
MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET
305 W. Main Street
Arlington, TX 76010
Plays through November 9th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday - Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $22.00 and $20.00 for full-time students and seniors 62+. If available, $5.00 student rush tickets can be purchased five minutes before curtain, with ID.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to http://www.theatrearlington.org/ or call the box office at 817-275-7661 or 817-261-9628 (Metro).