Theater review — Miracle on South Division Street

click to enlarge FAMILY AFFAIR: From left, Becca McCoy, Georgia Mallory Guy, Bonnie Agan and Stephen Ray. - GAVIN HAWK
FAMILY AFFAIR: From left, Becca McCoy, Georgia Mallory Guy, Bonnie Agan and Stephen Ray.

Miracle on South Division Street
runs through Aug. 17 at Bininger Theatre, Eckerd College,  4200 54th Ave. S., St. Petersburg, 727-864-7811, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, $25-$30

There’s almost a miracle in Act Two of Miracle on South Division Street, the ultimately disappointing comedy being offered these days by A Simple Theatre in residence at Eckerd College.

What happens is that a play which in Act One showed itself to be of little ambition or importance suddenly threatens to turn into a profoundly significant story of a family forced to reconsider its self-image, its cherished memories, and its future.

On Scott Cooper’s lovingly detailed kitchen set, the four Nowaks — Clara the matriarch, and her adult children Ruth, Beverly and Jimmy – absorb three shocks to their systems, shocks potent enough to provide the energy for hours, if not years, of self-searching and personal reflection. But miracles are rare: by the end of South Division Street, the Nowaks have hardly rethought themselves at all, and what seemed like the material for a revolution has turned out to be nothing more than a gag, played for laughs and then left behind. What started as a sitcom ends as a sitcom. A great opportunity is missed.

It didn’t have to be this way. Playwright Tom Dudzick is a talented wordsmith, smart and seemingly capable of carrying his ideas to their logical conclusions once the surprises start. And the situation that he establishes in Act One is fertile enough to develop into something meaningful.

The Nowaks, he shows us, are a Catholic family living in Buffalo, united by their link to an ancestor who, in 1943, had a vision of the Virgin Mary appearing in his barber shop. Grandpa Nowak commemorated this epiphany with a statue of the Virgin, and a shrine that for years has drawn religious seekers and supplicants. But Grandpa has died, and the youngest Nowaks are falling away from the faith. Jimmy is about to propose marriage to a Jewish woman (if his mother can’t stop him) and Ruth is a lesbian who pretends that her lover Lucy is just a good buddy.

Ruth is also an aspiring actor whose idea for a one-woman show can only succeed if it includes the truth about Grandpa, his holy vision and his sculpted Virgin. It’s that truth that’s first revealed at the end of Act One, and its deeper layers are brought to the surface in the act that follows. And then nothing — or next to nothing. Having won our astonishment and our laughter, the playwright and his characters go approximately nowhere. The Nowaks, it would seem, just don’t know what hit them.

Even so, there’s a lot to like about the acting of Bonnie Agan and Stephen Ray. Agan especially shines as the seriously religious, perpetually frazzled mother of children who just won’t toe the Catholic line. Looking like Meryl Streep in her glasses, and wearing a worn blue shift by costumer Jessica Thonen, Agan dominates Miracle’s acting, delivering a note-perfect performance as convincing as anything else seen this year. As her son Jimmy, Stephen Ray is also superb.
This is a young man who couldn’t care less about religious differences, who left that sort of thinking behind years ago, and who only wants a free hand to marry his Jewish girlfriend and have a few beers. As his sister Ruth, Georgia Mallory Guy isn’t quite so successful. She’s likable enough, but has a distracting habit of contorting her expressive face to show the emotion of the moment. Becca McCoy, as the other sister, is too loud in her outfit (an all-red bowling uniform) and too extreme in her delivery: She seems to come to this “real” family from a land of canned laughter and detergent commercials.

Gavin Hawk’s direction is usually fine, but you have to wonder how he could allow McCoy to employ a style so distinct from the other actors’. Ian Beck’s lighting is impeccable, though; it shows the Bininger stage, and Cooper’s set, at their considerable best.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it: go to Division Street, for Agan’s acting if for no other reason, and watch how her Clara holds certain values higher than anything. Then watch what happens to these values — or doesn’t happen — when the stunning news of Act Two is revealed. I think you’ll agree that something’s wrong here and it’s not in the performance. Writer Dudzick appears to have prepared the ground for an explosion. But come the moment and it turns out all he wanted was a laugh. We can be excused if we walk away from the theater dissatisfied.

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