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‘Miracle on South Division Street’: Something Divine in the Neighborhood

The Nowaks in Tom Dudzick’s play Miracle on South Division Street are your average quarrelsome middle-class American family. There’s the matriarch Clara, and her three children, Ruth, Jimmy and Beverly, all of whom love and hate each other in the manner of families everywhere.

The Nowaks’ claim to fame is that the Virgin Mary appeared to them in their yard, an event so momentous that Grandfather Nowak commissioned a statue and shrine that’s stood since 1943 outside their home on Buffalo’s East Side. It’s doesn’t exactly have the draw of Lourdes but, in Dudzick’s lively comedy, running in an entertaining production at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, the statue is a linchpin holding the old Polish neighborhood together.

Like other Rust Belt cities, Buffalo’s glory days are behind it, and the East Side is just scraping by. But as long as the Nowaks have the shrine, which for decades has drawn the faithful and the curious and allowed Clara Nowak to put the donations toward feeding the needy, there’s still a feeling of rootedness in the community. And if the Virgin Mary is a little unconventional in her appearance, well, who’s going to look that particular gift horse in the mouth too closely?

Dudzick has a gentle touch with his characters’ numerous foibles, but he doesn’t shirk the laughs. The Nowaks have secrets that spill out in inconvenient ways, and Dudzick is adept at mining the natural drama of family life, and the ways in which we all play roles within the family structure.

Ruthie, played with an appealing mix of anxiety and wry humor by Brandy Zarle, has something significant she wants to tell her family, but no one wants to give her the time, at least not at first. Her sister Beverly, played with an acerbic edge and moments of touching vulnerability by Jeannie Hines, has better things to do than listen to her sister talk about her idea for a theater project.

Their brother Jimmy is concealing from Beverly and Clara the fact that he’s been seeing a woman who is Jewish because they are — how to put this diplomatically? — strongly resistant to the idea of him marrying outside the faith. David Bonanno is a natural as the lackadaisical Jimmy, who is the family’s voice of common sense.

But it’s Clara who is the heart and soul of the play. She is an innocent, devout and warmhearted, but also stuck in the 1950s of her youth, when you went to Confession weekly and believed in a certain kind of America.

Peggy Cosgrave, who originated the role off-Broadway, reminded me of Jean Stapleton’s Edith in the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, to which this play bears a resemblance. She’s a little addlepated, goofy, and her understanding of reality isn’t always borne out by the facts. But she also intuits more than her children realize, and she embodies maternal love, which bends far but doesn’t break.

Cosgrave is a vital comic force on stage, but she doesn’t overplay the role or coarsen it by going for the overly broad laugh. Director Bill Coons nicely balances the comedy of frayed family bonds with the drama of the fast-paced revelations that emerge over the course of the play.

“Miracle on South Division Street” continues at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield through Dec. 22. For information and tickets call 603-448-3750 or go to www.shakerbridgetheatre.org.