Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Miracle' resonates warmly in Green Bay

Green Bay Community Theater

GREEN BAY, Wis. - “Miracle on South Division Street” is set in Buffalo, New York, but it feels like Green Bay, Wisconsin, or a lot of places hereabout.

One look at the set, and it says “kitchen,” “old house,” “ordinary family,” “lived in,” “kinda kitschy,” “well-worn,” “Roman Catholic home,” “busy.” You can almost smell aromas of a home-cooked ox tail stew and baked goodies.

The play’s Nowak family has a foundation in Catholicism. Beyond visible reminders of a photo of the pope and a relief of The Last Supper on the wall, the mother is hidebound Catholic to the point of bemoaning her son’s dating of a Jewish woman and a daughter’s skipping Mass (then lying about it).

And then there’s the matter of the shrine just outside the kitchen window. Grandpa Nowak said a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary came to him in 1943 with a message of world peace, and he erected a shrine with a statue as a reminder. Over the years, strangers have come to the shrine to take comfort and drop a few coins in a box.

The Nowaks’ identity is “the family with the shrine.” Much turns around that revered spot and its statue.

That’s the setup by playwright Tom Dudzick, and Green Bay Community Theater embraces the aura and runs with it in a warm and comical and moving production. Performances continue to April 30 in the troupe’s Robert Lee Brault Playhouse, which happens to be a former church (Protestant; this is not a complete circle).

***

Running time: One hour, 55 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. April 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, 29; 4 p.m. April 22, 29; 2 p.m. April 30

Info: gbcommunitytheater.com

***

Veteran director Dave Zochert and his adept cast develop a tight-knit family feeling as the story unfolds.

Things happen around the table of Clara Nowak and her three children that speak of sibling teasing and pushy-shove-y stuff, along with baiting Mother so she pitches little fits. This is a family that knows the weak points of everybody else, but at the core is a caring found no place else.

Much that unfolds in “Miracle on South Division Street” is by surprise doled out carefully and slowly by playwright Dudzick (also known for “Greetings” and “Over the Tavern”).

The audience knows early on that Ruthie (Kristen Bustrak) has called a family meeting. Things keep getting in the way of Ruthie dropping her shoe, one notably being the late arrival of Beverly (Roshelle Amundson), who is busy with her form of spiritual satisfaction – bowling. Meantime, affable brother Jimmy (Kristofer Holly) and his mother, Clara (Gayle Grier), banter about the ancient toaster Jimmy is fixing and the importance of getting the narration about the shrine to have more feeling than rote.

The cast finds a sweet spot in creating a family feeling. On opening night Thursday, this was subtly apparent when one actor fed a line to another actor who was momentarily drawing a blank so deftly that it seemed like the line was part of the script. That was like a kindness found in a family.

In general, actors build on this: Jimmy – nothing will rock his boat; Ruthie – a whole lot of frettin’ goin’ on; Beverly – a shark of snark; Clara – a string of firecrackers with a lighted match nearby.

Many revelations are in store for coming audiences. So are laughs and touching moments. Dudzick created a comfy and yet quietly provocative play about the meanings of faith. In the end, the play is a lesson in respect that doesn’t feel like a finger-wagging lesson.

One more thing: Strangely, Thursday’s performance started five minutes early. Now, that’s a first. People grumble if shows don’t start on time. Or seem to. Big, professional touring productions start seven minutes after the appointed time; it’s the “hold for seven” tradition to allow throngs to be seated. The five minutes early situation meant that 10 or so people who were on time were “late,” and there was stirring in the audience after the performance started. Strange.

***   

Creative: Playwright – Tom Dudzick; director – Dave Zochert; stage manager – Tim Killian; master carpenter – Noah Villarreal; set dresser/designer – Sandy Zochert; lighting designer – Peter Wojtowicz; sound designer – Chloe Ledvina; costume designer – Cindy Stein; properties designer – Karen Konshak; hair/make-up designer – Nannette Macy

Cast: Clara – Gayle Grier; Beverly – Roshelle Amundson; Ruth – Kristen Bustrak; Jimmy – Kris Holly

***

THE VENUE: A landmark on Green Bay’s west side, the 193-seat Robert Lee Brault Playhouse features elements of an earlier time as a church, built in 1854 (the current backstage dressing room), 1895 (auditorium) and 1911 (today’s Community Room). The most obvious remnants are the church’s peaked side-wall windows that held stained-glass windows. High-up triangular windows still contain stained glass, and their patterns can be seen playing on sunny days when the troupe has matinees. The auditorium includes a 30 by 23-foot open-end stage with no stage curtain. The troupe has remodeled some portions of the building with medieval touches, but the seating area retains elements of a church. The theater includes wooden arches with decorative geometric designs on the ends and exposed beams in the sharply angled ceiling. The troupe owns the building, which became its home in 1966. The Community Room serves as a gathering space for audiences prior to a performance and at intermission and for board and other internal meetings.

 THE PERSON: Larger-than-life personality Robert Lee Brault was a longtime Green Bay Community Theater actor, director, scenic designer and managing director. He and his wife, Rita Brault, were mainstays from the time the troupe performed at various locations through the purchase of the present playhouse. Bob Brault died Nov. 1, 2015, in Florida at age 88.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.


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