In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

A family uncovers some secrets in Chamber's "Miracle on South Division Street." (PHOTO: Paul Ruffolo)

MCT's "Miracle on South Division Street" is spirited but stale with stereotypes

There is a reason that treasured family histories are frequently called "lore." These mythologies have been assembled, edited and passed on by generations of people who love each other and want to take pride in their ancestral stock – regardless of the truth that lies beneath. Smoothing out the edges of history or covering up previous generations' misdeeds with quaint, oft-repeated fables is as American as the highly fictionalized first Thanksgiving.

And so it is for the Nowaks, the Polish-American family from Buffalo, New York, that populates Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's current production of "Miracle on South Division Street," by Tom Dudzick.

For the Nowaks, the defining moment of their family history is very public – commemorated by a 17-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The shrine was erected by Grandpa after he experienced a vision on Christmas Eve, 1943, right there in his barber shop. Ever since that moment, the faithful have come to pray at the statue. Rashes have been cured. Spare change and pleas for intervention have been left behind.

The family has established a soup kitchen for the poor, where they claim the food has been prepared on "holy ground." And most importantly, they have felt the privilege and responsibility of being chosen by God, even though the Catholic Church will not officially recognize the vision as a certified miracle.

It's a great story. But according to the eldest daughter Ruth, it's not true. So on Christmas Eve, she gathers the family together to set the record straight – with predictable reactions from her mother and two siblings.

As the brittle but determined Ruth, Kat Wodtke is a good foil for her noisy, often overbearing family. Her slight frame and mousy demeanor disguise the rebel of the family, who's not only determined to make waves with her revised history, but also by leaving the church and ultimately leaving Buffalo.

Her polar opposite is the delightful Greta Wohlrabe, as her brassy sister Beverly. With her hair pulled back in a long braid, and outfitted with a bowling bag and track suit, Wohlrabe is the ultimate product of her blue collar, Polish Catholic neighborhood. Loud and opinionated, gossipy and dead sure of her place in the world, Bev has the funniest identity crisis in the play after her roots are revealed. With a spot-on, flat Buffalo accent and great comic timing, Wohrabe imbues a one-dimensional character with real heart.

Josh Krause also gives the amiable, Mr. Fix-It brother Jimmy a lot more layers than the script provides. The get-along, go-along member of the family who is open to learning about other people's point of view, he is amused and amazed by the revelations presented by his sister. His boyish grin and occasional one-liners let us know he's focused much more on the possibilities of the future than weight of the past.

But then there's Mama Nowak. As the matriarch of the family, Raeleen McMillion's character is saddled with upholding all the old world ways. More Catholic than the pope and more Polish than babka, she's a throw-back to the 1950s, hopelessly steeped in tradition and insulated from the world. She's the out-of-touch relative you lovingly mock when you come back to work after another torturous visit home.

McMillion's take on her slow-to-evolve character translates into a painfully slow delivery of her lines, which elongates the stereotype in unpleasant ways.

And ultimately, that's the problem with "Miracle": It's one long Polish joke, with a series of eleventh hour transformations that are as implausible as they are saccharine. Under the direction of MCT producing artistic director C. Michael Wright, it's also a static, intermission-less 95 minutes of four people sitting around a table. When the action onstage consists of eating fruit salad, the plot had better be riveting. And here, it's not.

Ironically, there is an incredibly interesting and moving story embedded in the play, but it's not the one we get to see: It's the treasure chest of history that's unearthed about why Grandpa really erected the shrine. Turns out the "truth" of this play is much more interesting than the fiction that has grown up around it – or the reactions of those affected by it.


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