All four actors turn in solid performances, and deliver both snappy comic timing and credible chemistry as an imperfect but likeable family.
—Joff Schmidt, theatre reviewer
Every family has secrets. Some, like the Nowaks, have more than their fair share - and a 17-foot tall shrine to the Virgin Mary in their backyard.
So begins Tom Dudzick's 2010 light comedy Miracle on South Division Street, running now at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's mainstage. It's not a comedy that treads any new ground, or provides a particularly challenging, or even memorable, night at the theatre. But it does offer lots of gentle laughs and good holiday cheer.
The Nowak family's claim to fame is a statue of the Virgin Mary, built by their Polish immigrant patriarch in 1943 after allegedly receiving a vision. Their Buffalo neighbourhood has seen better days - Clara, whose father was the statue builder, tells her children she remembers "when there were 20 businesses on the block, and children on bikes, and dogs."
Now, as we see in the background of Brian Perchaluk's show-stealing set (detailed right down to the smoke from the chimney), there are more "For Rent" signs than there are kids and dogs. But the family - Clara and her children Beverly, Ruth, and Jimmy - cling to the miracle, and the few visitors (and donated dimes) it brings around.
But it isn't long before Ruth (Stefanie Wiens), an aspiring playwright, calls a Christmas Eve meeting with her mother and siblings to reveal some family secrets she's been hiding - and everything the Nowaks think they know about their history begins to unravel.
This all sounds like a very dramatic scenario, but Dudzick plays it for laughs, and lands a lot of them - not necessarily huge belly laughs, but enough good chuckles to keep an audience entertained. As Clara, the somewhat crotchety mother of the Nowak brood, Debbie Maslowsky is an audience favourite - and gets the best lines (like insisting that Jesus, rather than being Jewish, "was the first Catholic" - or, when discussing Ruth's audition for The Vagina Monologues, asking "What is it, like a puppet show?").
All four actors (Tricia Cooper and Cory Wojcik round out the all-local cast as Beverly and Jimmy) turn in solid performances, and deliver both snappy comic timing and credible chemistry as an imperfect but likeable family. Director Robb Paterson keeps the 110-minute comedy moving briskly to its sentimental - bordering on mawkish - ending.
I personally prefer a comedy with a bit of bite - and this one's fairly toothless. It's also fairly harmless, and there are certainly worse ways to spend an evening than having a few laughs, and reminding ourselves of the importance of family as the holidays approach.
That's no miracle - but it's not bad, either.