MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET

Pride, Prejudice & Identity: A Comedy Fueled by Family Secrets, Polish Pastries, & Gefilte Fish

At: The Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 U.S. Route 1, S. Chesterfield, VA 23834

Performances: January 29 – February November 19 – December 31, 2022

Ticket Prices: $15-$49

Info: (804) 748-5203 or https://www.swiftcreekmill.com

We all know that we’re special, but some of us are more special than others. Take the Nowak family of Buffalo, NY, for instance. In 1942 the Blessed Virgin Mary “appeared” – emphasis required! – to an ordinary barber, and his family would never be the same. This miracle led to people being healed, spawned the birth of a soup kitchen, and became the anchoring event that made an otherwise average family special.

But all is not what it seems in MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET. A deathbed confession turns everything upside down, making the Nowak family question everything they have known and based their lives on for two generations.

While the play and its characters are fictitious, the premise of the story is based on fact. There is an actual Our Lady of Seneca Street Shrine in Buffalo, NY – which just happens to be the author’s hometown. In the 1950s a barber named Joe Battaglia lived at 849 Seneca Street in the apartment above his shop. Apparently, one night Battaglia was awakened from his sleep by a shining light outside his window that beckoned to him. When he went outside to investigate, it is reported that he encountered nothing less than an image of the Virgin Mary. The image spoke to him, telling him not to be afraid and instructed him to help spread a message of world peace.

Battaglia commemorated the occasion by building a 20-foot tall brick and glass structure that houses a life-sized statue of the Holy Mother. After the barber’s death, the shrine fell into disrepair and was slated to be torn down but local residents fought to preserve it. To this day the  Lady of Seneca Street Shrine is still maintained by a dedicated local caretaker committed to preserving the history and continuing the legend. The shrine has its own address – 847 Seneca Street – and a mail slot to receive donations and the prayers that come from all around the world.

With this background, Dudzick re-imagined the story of the barber’s vision and the resulting shrine. Instead of the Battaglia family, we meet the Nowaks who are about to have a family meeting in which daughter Ruth (Audra Honaker) is about to reveal startling news that will shake the family to its core. After preparing a lunch of fruit salad (why didn’t she rinse the blueberries and strawberries…) her efforts are thwarted by her older sister, Beverly (Donna Marie Miller) who is more than a little self-centered and has her sights centered on (a) a bowling tournament and (b) a new boyfriend – an ex-priest candidate. There’s also a brother, Jimmy (Neal Gallini-Burdick) whose impending engagement is also the cause of a controversial subtext. The Nowaks, you see, are devote Catholics – at least according to their mother Clara (Jacqueline Jones) – and this is a key component of the script.

The plot twists and unending life-changing revelations create both tension and comedy – often and most successfully when they occur simultaneously. Honaker and Miller are recreating the roles I saw them portray when this play was performed at Virginia Rep’s Hanover Tavern in 2017. But with Jones as Clara and Gallini-Burdick as Jimmy the energy in the Swift Creek production is quite different and the cast’s timing, under the steady-handed direction of Tom Width, hits different notes as well. (In case you’re wondering, in the 2017 production mentioned above the mother was played by Catherine Shaffner and the son by John Mincks, both of whom filled these roles with distinction.)

MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET is a delightful feel-good play, but it touches on some very real, very serious, and still relevant topics: identity, faith, family, love, loyalty, ritual, and more. By making this a comedy and placing it in a different time period, we are encouraged to examine some important and controversial topics from a distance – it’s not me, it’s the Nowaks. But every family has secrets, prejudices, and inside jokes. But how much of it – if any – should be shared outside the family, and to what purpose. Ruth struggles with these questions through the lens of a one-woman show; many today look at – or ignore – the same questions through the multiple lenses of social media. Makes you wonder if the miracle is what resulted from the vision – or what occurred in the Nowak kitchen.

Honaker delivers the tough lines with ease and patience that defies human understanding. Miller behaves like a bratty younger sibling rather than the eldest, but manages to remain likeable, while Gallini-Burdick manages to remain a voice of reason throughout it all. Jones vacillates between wide-eyed innocence and wisdom. She is also at the center of my favorite scene – where Clara, the Catholic mother first discovers that Jesus was Jewish, and later delivers one of my favorite lines – the final line of the play.

ADDENDUM: This review has been edited. I was roundly chastised by the playwright for giving away the final line. But, dear readers,in over forty years of writing about dance and theater, this is the first time I EVER received a comment directly from the playwright. I am humbled – and humbly edited this text. jdl

Just in case I didn’t make it clear in my ponderings, above, I highly recommend MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET. It’s a Christmas story with a purpose; it’s entertaining and thought-provoking, predictable, and surprising at the same time. The cast is outstanding, the story intriguing, and Width’s direction reflects his genuine love and affection for each show he directs, and his scenic design is homey and welcoming. Cue Christmas (or Chanukah) music and enjoy.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET

By Tom Dudzick

Directed by Tom Width

Cast:

Jimmy Nowak – Neal Gallini-Burdock

Ruth Nowak – Audra Honaker

Clara Nowak – Jacqueline Jones

Beverly Nowak – Donna Marie Miller

Creative Team:

Directed by Tom Width

Costume Design by Maura Lynch Cravey

Lighting Design by Joe Doran

Scenic Design by Tom Width

Technical Direction by Liz Allmon

Run Time:

90 minutes, no intermission

Tickets:

$15-$49

Photos: Kieran Rundle

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Author: jdldances

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and transplanted to Richmond, VA. A retiree from both the New York City and Richmond City Public School systems, she is currently an Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, and holds the degrees of BS and MA in Dance and Dance Education (New York University), MSEd in Early Childhood Education (Brooklyn College, CUNY), and EdD in Educational Leadership (Regent University). Julinda is the Richmond Site Leader for TEN/The Eagles Network and was formerly the East Region Coordinator for the International Dance Commission and has worked in dance ministry all over the US and abroad (Bahamas, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Puerto Rico). She is licensed in dance ministry by the Eagles International Training Institute (2012), and was ordained in dance ministry through Calvary Bible Institute and Seminary, Martinez, GA (2009).

4 thoughts on “MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET”

  1. Did you HAVE to give away the FINAL LINE OF THE PLAY!!!!!????? That is a mortal sin of theatre!!! I’m glad you enjoyed the line, but now you have deprived future audiences from enjoying it as much as you, since now they’ve already heard it! I am very disappointed in you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Honaker delivers the tough lines with ease and patience that defies human understanding. Miller behaves like a bratty younger sibling rather than the eldest, but manages to remain likeable, while Gallini-Burdick manages to remain a voice of reason throughout it all. Jones vacillates between wide-eyed innocence and wisdom. She is also at the center of my favorite scene – where Clara, the Catholic mother first discovers that Jesus was Jewish, and later delivers one of my favorite lines – the final line of the play.

      Like

    2. ADDENDUM: This review has been edited. I was roundly chastised by the playwright for giving away the final line. But, dear readers,in over forty years of writing about dance and theater, this is the first time I EVER received a comment directly from the playwright. I am humbled – and humbly edited this text. jdl

      Like

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