Tom Dudzick’s “Miracle on South Division Street” offers little more than a middling TV sitcom, but it does manage to generate a reasonable degree of human warmth. Think of it as a sitcom with heart.
The New Theatre production, anchored by a quirky and seemingly unaffected performance by guest star Connie Stevens, generates some legitimate laughs, particularly in the second half. Some of that we can attribute to Dudzick’s knack for well-placed one-liners, but most of it has to do with the actors. Dudzick’s piece is short enough to be staged as an extended one-act, although director Richard Carrothers breaks it up with an intermission. Despite its brevity, the show threatens to wear out its welcome. The play unfolds in the kitchen of Clara Nowak’s home in a decaying working-class neighborhood in Buffalo. Clara’s adult son, Jimmy, drives a garbage truck. Daughter Beverly has a job filling ketchup bottles and devotes most of her spare time to bowling. Daughter Ruth is an aspiring actress coming to terms with her sexuality and pondering a move to New York.
For decades Clara has collected nickels, dimes and quarters from folks making the pilgrimage to see a statue said to represent the Blessed Mother that Clara’s father erected in his barbershop in the 1940s after allegedly seeing the Virgin Mary one night. The Nowaks are good, working-class, Polish-American Catholics, and Clara takes her religion most seriously. The first sign of trouble is Jimmy’s relationship with a Jewish girl and bowling partner. Clara can’t abide the prospect of Jimmy marrying outside his religion. Then Ruth describes the one-woman show she intends to write based on information that was imparted to her exclusively by her grandmother. Turns out Grandpa had some secrets, documented by evidence unearthed during the course of the play. This throws the family’s religious identity into question. Dudzick’s script is littered with unoriginal Catholic and Jewish jokes, a few of which elicit honest laughs. Much of the dialogue has the ring of a vintage Borscht Belt routine, but then this play is like taking a trip in a time machine. It was first performed in 2009, but everything about it feels like the 1950s.
Stevens delivers a relaxed, conversational performance that renders Clara a sort of wacky eccentric without ever forcing the issue. As Jimmy, Craig Benton brings his customary sharp comic timing to the stage. Cheryl Weaver, as Beverly, is effective in an uncluttered, efficient performance. And Tricia Leigh Fisher (Stevens’ real-life daughter) demonstrates charm and charisma as Ruth. Like all New Theatre productions, the design elements are polished.
The play is set on Christmas Eve, and the holiday headwear Clara asks her grown kids to wear is hilarious. Whether those are the work of costumer Georgianna Londre Buchanan or props designer Nicole Christianson is unclear.
All I know is they made me laugh.
“Miracle on South Division Street” runs through June 15 at the New Theatre, 9299 Foster St., Overland Park. For more information, call 913-649-7469 or go to NewTheatre.com.