miracle02By Manning Harris

Stage Door Players is currently performing Tom Dudzick’s “Miracle on South Division Street,” a totally delightful comedy running through April 13.  It had an off-Broadway run in 2012; this is its Atlanta debut.

The Nowak family lives in a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.  There are four of them:  Clara, the matriarch (Susan Shalhoub Larkin); her son Jimmy (Tony Larkin (also her real-life son); and sisters Ruth (Kelly Criss) and Beverly (Kara Cantrell).  Director Dina Shadwell has cast the play brilliantly.  These are four expert actors who are all gifted comic players.

According to the family mythology, the Virgin Mary made an appearance in Clara’s father’s barber shop in 1942 and spoke of world peace.  Her father erected a 20-foot shrine to the Blessed Mother, which adjoins the house; the barber shop has long since been converted into a soup kitchen, which Clara runs.

Now if you’re already raising your eyebrows in incredulity, here’s what Beverly would tell you:  “It’s  not supposed to make sense—it’s religion!”

The Nowaks may be solid members of the Roman Catholic, Polish-American community on the East Side of Buffalo, but already there are rumblings of discontent and disbelief in the family.

Brother Jimmy is dating—seriously—a Jewish girl.  When he reminds his mother Clara that Jesus was Jewish, she fumblingly replies that Jesus was the first Catholic!

Also, Ruthie has stopped going to Mass and is writing a one-woman play in which she hopes to star about the real story of the Virgin Mary’s appearance.  Uh-oh.  Meanwhile, Beverly is dating an ex-priest, and Clara begins to think perhaps he could sway to Pope to recognize the miracle, because the church has not.

In addition, Beverly, a ketchup bottler, is entirely too fond of bowling.  Remember what John Gielgud said in the movie “Arthur” to Liza Minnelli, of whom he heartily disapproved:  “Usually, one must go to a bowling alley to meet someone of your caliber.”  Beverly is the bluest of this blue collar family in speech and mannerism, and Ms. Cantrell’s portrayal is free-wheeling and hilarious.

If all this sounds just too wacky to work, I must gently protest that somehow it does; perhaps the main reason is that each character seems so real and down to earth. Once again, we return to the fine performances:  If producers make a movie of “Miracle,” this is the cast they should use.

Ms. Larkin’s Clara avoids going for easy laughs and her character’s total sincerity makes her even more endearing and funny.  There’s nice chemistry between Clara and her son Jimmy (wonder how that happened?); Ms. Criss’ Ruth may be the most sensible of the group; but the whole family dynamic simply works.  More praise here for Ms. Shadwell’s direction; this two hour play (one intermission) just rolls by “like buttah.”

Now the thing is—you’ve got just two weekends left.  It’s the best pure comedy on any Atlanta stage.  The play is really about tolerance, love, and our human reluctance to change our minds.  But it is funny and also moving.  I’d get tickets now.

For tickets and information, visit stagedoorplayers.net.

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.