Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: (Winnipeg) Miracle on South Division Street

Stefanie Wiens (by Bruce Monk)

The Unseen Statue 
by Edgar Governo

Miracles are always just around the corner. They happened to someone we used to know, they're sure to save us from this mess, they're going to change the world according to the prophecies in our holy text of choice. Somehow, though, the reality always turns out to be something other than we expected.

Families and cities, like individuals, can end up clinging to this idea of the miracle—something that surely happened in the past or will happen in the future, without ever happening right now. The Polish-American Nowak family in Miracle on South Division Street rests their whole sense of identity on their Catholic faith in general and on the tale of a past family miracle in particular, only to have both fall apart when confronted with reality. All around them, the city of Buffalo is also slowly deteriorating, losing whatever sense of miraculous promise originally brought immigrants like the Nowaks there in the first place.

I was sure it had to be by a Manitoba playwright

When I first read a brief description of this play (without knowing its setting), I was sure it had to be by a Manitoba playwright, since these themes resonate so clearly with Winnipeg's own conflicted sense of identity. Winnipeg is often seen as a city one gets stuck in until a better option comes along, while its residents simultaneously look back to its long-past legacy as a boom town and convince themselves that the next municipal achievement (an NHL franchise, a national museum) will most definitely turn that reputation around where none of the past milestones have succeeded. That tale of a local origin also turned out to be a fiction in my own mind, and it took a script that originated Off-Broadway to provide a metaphor for Winnipeg's identity crisis.

For all of this portentous analysis, however, Miracle on South Division Street has too slight a plot to live up to the deeper territory it tries to cover. The story relies on a sitcom structure, with two-dimensional characters and stereotypical humour, which seems vastly at odds with the complex subject matter being worked out—from closeted sexual orientation to the spectre of the Holocaust.

Early scenes try to quickly establish the dynamic between family matriarch Clara Nowak (Debbie Maslowsky) and her three grown children, but listening in on their exchanges feels about as exciting as eavesdropping on any average family you don't know as they plan their holidays. Contributing to the "filmed before a live studio audience" feeling is that Maslowsky (despite being the most convincing of the four cast members) gives off a vibe in her performance oddly reminiscent of Estelle Getty's portrayal of Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls. With her efforts at maintaining a statue built by her father after reportedly seeing the "Holy Mother" outside his barbershop, and her constant recitation of that official history, she could fall into a Sophia-like anecdote at any moment. ("Picture it: Poland, 1942...")

More unfortunate is how much material rests on the revelations provided by middle daughter Ruth Nowak (Stefanie Wiens) regarding the true inspiration for that statue and the secrets it reveals about the Nowak family lineage. Wiens seems to be performing a more earnest version of this story than her castmates, neither wacky enough to create a more successful comedy nor serious enough to provide gravitas to everyone else's hijinks. Siblings Beverly (Tricia Cooper) and Jimmy (Cory Wojcik) fare better if only because they know they're in a holiday sitcom, allowing their broad characteristics (she's a bowler, he's good with home repairs) to get more of a pass due to their excellent comic timing.

Even the set design shows a similar awareness, as the family kitchen where the action takes place has  good attention to the details of a working-class home (dated furniture and wallpaper, smoke coming out of the chimney above) but takes up less than half the stage, without even a fence outside its walls to suggest a world beyond. The worst part of this bare approach is that for all its central importance to the story, the miraculous statue itself doesn't actually make an appearance—it's right by the house, we're told, but we never see it. I'm sure it's just around the corner.

Miracle on South Division Street runs to December 15.

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