Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Miracle does happen onstage, but warm glow lost at end

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22Yes, Virginia, Miracle on South Division Street attempts to hitch its sleigh to the classic Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street. While the miracle in the latter work determined whether a department store Santa might be the real thing, in the former, which opened Thursday at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, the miracle in question revolves around the long-held Nowack belief that the Virgin Mary really appeared to the family patriarch.

Both Miracles examine the nature of faith, which for many is believing even when common sense tells you not to.

Buffalo-born playwright Tom Dudzick is known for penning heart-warming, harmless family comedies, like Over the Tavern at RMTC in 2007, and for most of the first act of Miracle on South Division Street again attempts to please undemanding audiences with cheap laughs and sitcom plotting.

Just before intermission, a miracle happens and secrets spill out in a way no one could claim they saw coming. Characters onstage and the audience share in the shock -- and delight by those in the seats -- at being so totally blind-sided.

The Nowacks are a Polish-American working-class family living in a once thriving Buffalo neighbourhood that now is pock-marked by urban blight, owing to its inhabitants long ago flight to the suburbs. What makes them special is that in the early '40s, the Blessed Virgin Mary supposedly appeared to a barber, who erected a 19-foot-high shrine, with a statue enclosed, that is still an object of veneration in the area.

The barber was Clara's father and ever since she has revelled in the knowledge her family were Mary's chosen people, ever-protective of the family legacy.

Clara, who looks and sounds as if she stepped off the set of TV's Golden Girls, is also a crusty guardian of the faith. Her home is decorated outside with Christmas lights, as smoke curls out of the chimney. Inside, a crucifix and photo of the Pope adorn her '70s-era kitchen, designed accurately by Brian Perchaluk. It is there that time stands still and her three grown children revert to being kids again, where she can chide them for skipping mass or for their lacklustre spiels about the statue to curious passers-by.

Jimmy is the dutiful son who fixes his mother's broken appliances and has worked overtime to buy an engagement ring for his -- wait for it -- Jewish girlfriend. Ruth is a wannabe actress who also has a secret girlfriend, while Bev is the graceless, track-suited bowler whose beau is an almost-priest.

Ruth has interested a theatre producer in her idea for a one-woman stage show about the real circumstances surrounding the statue. She has called a Christmas Eve meeting to seek her family's permission and divulge the death-bed confession of Clara's mother. The news hits the unbelievers like an appearance by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and ensures no silent night.

Revelation after revelation creates genuine comic punch and lots of laughs. Dudzick finds a truly imaginative way to upend everything that the Nowacks believe, as well as who they think they are. It's an unwanted eye-opener for Clara, who has resisted change going on all around her out of loyalty to the miracle. Grudgingly she becomes willing to embrace the comfort of truth in her life.

Miracle is an all-Winnipeg comic meal, fussed over until it's as well-done as can be by director Robb Paterson and served by a quartet of local actors not often seen in such prominent roles on the RMTC big stage.

Debbie Maslowsky wonderfully captures all her Clara's confusion when the holy ground on which she thought she lived gives way. Stefanie Wiens is the catalyst as Ruth, and she dishes the dirt with measured restraint. Cory Wojcik is a natural as Jimmy, who, while still intimidated by his mother, is determined to break out of her narrow vision of the world. As Beverly, Tricia Cooper comes across like a beer-guzzling cousin of Laverne and Shirley.

The disclosures will certainly leave some RMTC patrons wondering how they would react if in Clara's position.

Unfortunately, in the end Dudzick can't leave the audience with a warm glow and delivers a parting groaner that goes down like undercooked turkey.

Theatre Review

Miracle on South Division Street

Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

To Dec. 15

Tickets: $29-$78

Three and a half stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 G4

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