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Shelf life

New York playwright adds exclusive RMTC list to his credits

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It's an exclusive list of playwrights who have had more than one play produced at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre mainstage in the last five years.

It's no surprise that William Shakespeare would be part of that list, or even fellow Englishman Willy Russell, the author of the ever-popular Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, but few would guess American Tom Dudzick would be in their company.

Dudzick might be the least recognized playwright to ever have more than one play produced at RMTC, or even in his home state.

"I don't think many New Yorkers would know of me, but I'm one of the few playwrights that makes a living at it," says the proud Buffalo product who resides in the village of Nyack, just north of the Big Apple. "My stuff is done regionally a lot. I've had two off-Broadway plays."

A measure of his success is that the 62-year-old Dudzick has his own section on the shelves of the Drama Book Shop, the go-to Manhattan outlet for stage scripts and only bookstore awarded its own Tony Award. That's what he aspired to when he was a struggling stage writer in the early 1990s.

"I walk in there now and there's my own section and it's really a kick," he says during a telephone interview.

Dudzick has made his mark as a chronicler of family life in Buffalo, where he lived in an apartment over his dad's bar, called Big Joe Dudzick's, in a blue-collar neighbourhood. His 1994 play Over the Tavern, perhaps his most produced play and the one RMTC staged in 2007, kicked off a semi-fictional trio of comedies based on his early years in Buffalo.

The Over the Tavern trilogy won him a description as the "Catholic Neil Simon," and it's a heady compliment to be mentioned in the same breath as the writer of The Odd Couple and the Eugene trilogy.

"I'm flattered, he is one of my heroes," says Dudzick. "I'm not going to argue. We both write plays about family a lot and they're funny with lots of one-liners."

His new play, Miracle on South Division Street, again returns to the Buffalo of his youth. After an off-Broadway run earlier this year, RMTC is the first theatre to bring it to its stage.

Miracle is based on a real landmark, a brick, glass-encased shrine to the Virgin Mary that was erected in a vacant lot near his father's bar. As a Catholic child, he had prayed before the statue built by a local Italian barber who claimed that Mary had appeared to him and he was instructed by her to build a shrine as a message of world peace. The appearance was never confirmed by the Catholic Church.

"It was a miracle just as good as your Fatima or Lourdes," says Dudzick. "I bought it; I believed the Blessed Mother appeared to him."

A few years ago Dudzick made a pilgrimage back to his old stomping grounds and found that his father's tavern had been levelled and left as a parking lot and most of the other businesses nearby were closed and abandoned. Amid all the urban decay the statue still stood.

"I looked at it and thought, 'There's a story here,'" he says. "There had to be drama here. The statue has lasted 60 years. People still leave letters asking for miracles and make donations."

His fictionalized version has the Virgin Mary appearing in the Buffalo barbershop belonging to the Nowack family, whose matriarch Ruth has been keeping the story of the appearance alive. A daughter is in theatre and wants to dramatize the tale with a one-woman show and seeks the family permission at their home on Christmas Eve.

The play wasn't originally penned with a Christmas background; it was added when a theatre came looking for a holiday show that would be as successful as his breakthrough play, Greetings, which ran off-Broadway in 1993. Dudzick has two versions and RMTC will produced the Christmas one with an all-Winnipeg cast of Tricia Cooper, Debbie Maslowsky, Stefanie Wiens and Cory Wojcik.

Dudzick got most of his training for the stage on the job in dinner theatre. He had been working in a ketchup factory when a friend told him of a dinner theatre opening aboard a former Mississippi riverboat. He played music for the shows, then began acting in them before writing them for over six years.

"It taught me how to write a play just by being onstage and hearing what the audience liked," he says. "It was a good education."

He quotes the major American entertainer George M. Cohan -- "I'm just a regular guy who knows what regular guys like to see" -- to explain his success.

"I try to reach the common man with my humour. It's not erudite or overly sophisticated but it reaches a lot of people. My plays resonate with the common man, I think, because I'm one of them."

Theatre Preview

Miracle on Division Street

Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

óè Opens Nov. 22, to Dec. 15

óè Tickets: $29-$78

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2012 C6

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