Between the "Buffalo Billion," the Canalside project, and a Katie Couric-hosted video series for Yahoo! News kicking off its first episode in the Queen City, Buffalo has been making a sort of post-industrial comeback over the last few years. But Buffalo native and renowned playwright Tom Dudzick isn't writing about the future (at least, not yet). His works -- most notably the comedic "Over the Tavern" trilogy -- focus on the blue-collar descendants of immigrants who raised families, worked, lived, and died in the city.
Last weekend one such play, "Miracle on South Division Street," opened at Geva Theatre Center. It premiered in 2009 at the Penguin Repertory Theatre in Stony Point, New York, and ran off-Broadway in 2012 before moving to regional theaters to tour.
The fictional story is based on a real life account of Dudzick's barber, who claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to him one day in his shop and thus erected a 17-foot-tall statue in the neighborhood. In the play, the barber is the deceased patriarch of the Nowak family, and a deathbed confession reveals the statue's origins to be a bit more complicated than his grandchildren and daughter ever suspected. The play uses a seemingly simple plot, but packs several hilarious twists that keep the audience's attention for the entire 100-minute run.
Pamela Hunt ("Radio Gals" and "Five Guys Named Moe" at Geva) directs a four-person cast with finesse, blending every day actions like slicing fruit and cheese with duel-like staging around the Formica kitchen table. The matriarch of the story (and daughter to the barber), Clara, is played by Toni Di Buono, who also appeared in last season's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" as Sonia. Di Buono replaced another actor last minute in the role, but it's hard to imagine anyone else as the warm, nagging, and kindhearted character. She's splendidly witty and convincing as the Catholic mother who's tragically mourning her grown children's departures from the Church.
Her grown daughter, Ruth (Laura Gragtmans), is the most reticent to the family religion, as she's busy pursuing a theatrical career and writing a book about the family's statue. Her eyes are set on New York City, where Clara sarcastically remarks the younger generation migrates as they "give up" on Buffalo. (The play is set in 2010, right before the Nickel City began to rebound.) Gragtmans captures the grace and anxiety of an adult child who desperately wants to please her mother and keep the family together while also pursuing her dreams. Ruth's brother, Jimmy (Colin Ryan), and sister, Beverly (Katharine McLeod), have no plans to leave the city, since they both have local jobs on a garbage truck and in a bottling factory, respectively. Ryan plays the smartass, charming younger brother who's also a bit of a mama's boy, while McLeod is the beautiful -- yet aging -- older sister who can't keep a committed relationship afloat. The four portray a very believable family -- led by Di Buono -- and the constant energy and banter is particularly impressive.
The scenic design by Bill Clarke is brilliant. The set is primarily the kitchen of a rundown house on South Division Street, located on Buffalo's east side (and where Dudzick actually spent his childhood). With its running water, padded teal chairs and ancient appliances, the kitchen is so realistic that Polish folks might think they smell Golumpkis baking in the oven. Amanda Doherty's costume designs are expertly tailored to each character, revealing nuanced details about their history and lifestyle. The lighting by Derek Madonia captures the wilting sunshine of an early autumn day in Western New York, and the warm glow of dusty light fixtures in the house. Sound designer Dan Roach sets the tone with pre-show and intermission sets of lively polka tunes.
In his biography, Dudzick is described as "one of the few playwrights who makes a living at it," and after seeing one of his shows, the high success rate is obvious. He writes for the audience he grew up with. With its Babka (a sweet bread) and Hail Mary references, the lines in "Miracle" are a transcription of every Polish-American Catholic household from the 1930's to present day. It's touching, heartfelt -- and blessedly entertaining.