You know the odd thing about miracles? They rarely happen at the Vatican in the heart of Rome. The Virgin Mary’s hardly a snob — when she puts in an appearance, it’s usually in a chummy little down on-its-luck neighborhood, to a non-assuming little family like the Polish-American Nowaks of South Division Street in Buffalo. In Tom Dudzick’s off-Broadway comedy, Miracle on South Division Street, the miracle isn’t a miracle at all, but it sure feels like one, and it’s funny as hell.

Clara Nowak has spent her entire life tending the shrine commemorating a vision of the Holy Mother that her father had in his barbershop in 1942. Though she wouldn’t brag about it, the shrine boasts a coin slot available for any takers and she’s ready to whip up a miracle soup should the hungry and bereft show up on her doorstep. Her faith is rock solid and unshakable. But before the night is over, Clara’s three grown children will manage to rattle  every assumption she holds dear to her heart — and thanks to a secret grandpa left in the attic — shake that kitschy little kitchen they inhabit down to its floorboards. And that jar of gefilte fish her son added to the grocery list of pepperoni and beer? That won’t seem so strange after all.

Peggy Cosgrave’s Clara is the perfect mother hen. A stage veteran for 42 years, she’s been playing Clara to audiences at the Penguin Rep Theatre in New Jersey and the Seven Angels Theatre in Connecticut for three of those years and it shows. With every flap of her arms, every inquiring twist and turn of pixie-headed surprise topping that plump, intractable frame, she rules the roost. The chicks under her wing are another story.

There’s Beverly, the eldest, a happy-go-lucky, good time kind of gal who travels with her bowling ball bag securely in tow. Liz Zazzi, who also originated the role at Penguin Rep, plays Beverly as a loud-mouthed but lovable sort, who would support her “ma” at any cost.

In the middle is Ruth, an attractive, but troubled woman. Her short skirt, black stockings, and lace-up boots wouldn’t look out of place in Soho, but the book she’s been nursing all these years about the Nowaks better find its way out of Buffalo before it turns into a poor man’s Moby Dick. As played by Andrea Maulella, she’s a determined and very serious, sometimes too serious, daughter. There’s enough foreshadowing in Dudzick’s script to tell us she’s got her own skeletons in the closet. But she’s not about to show how vulnerable she really is about life outside Clara’s kitchen, even if we know she’s trembling under her tights.

Jimmy, the youngest, is the first one to create a stir in this domestic coop. He’s dating a Jewish girl but keeping it under wraps where Clara is concerned. Of course, it’s no big deal to him. Faith is faith, however you dress it up. “It’s not supposed to make sense, its religion.” But if his mother suspected that would be another story. “Who do you think lived in Jerusalem, the Shanahans?” he retorts, when Clara can’t conceive that Jesus just might be Jewish. Rusty Ross as Jimmy has an off-kilter charm. There’s a perennially adolescent quality to his character that we believe, but at times, the jerky can’t-sit-still physicality he brings to the part can be a bit distracting. (I was reminded of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s “Two Wild and Crazy Guys” skits from Saturday Night Live’s late ’70s.) If this talented actor (an original member of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!) would rein it in a little, he’d do just fine.

It would be unfair to reveal how Clara’s “holy ground” becomes de-sanctified.  It would spoil the fun and there’s a lot of it to be had in this production. One revelation after another tumbles out during the course of the play, with no intermission in sight. The audience has no time to catch a breath before the next aftershock hits. It’s a well-constructed, clever piece of theatre, and in Joe Brancato’s deft, sure-fire direction, not a moment is wasted. However you might question a specific actor’s interpretation of his or her role, the Nowaks are a family unit, and this director brings them fully alive.

As oddball as the Nowaks may be, set designer Josh Iacovelli has given them the perfect set to inhabit. The ordinariness of Clara’s kitchen, from the ubiquitous maple wood breakfast table to the copper-colored fruit molds on the wall, hits just the right chord. To Iacovelli’s credit, getting “ordinary” right can be a lot harder than creating an otherworldly, dream landscape of personal invention. Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes also manage to achieve the correct measure of downtrodden ragtag couture. As for sound considerations, a little background music — a tiny kitchen radio perhaps — as filler would go a long way to enlivening this one-set world. But that’s a playwright or director’s choice, and the actors handle their own sound effects handily enough.

Dudzick understands the universe of tumble-down working class characters. The characters are so idiosyncratic, so daffy and infectious — especially Clara — that one can only wish that Dudzick would write a fuller, more complex story of their travails. In truth, as he’s presented it, the evening works more like a long single act.

The characters may be fictional but the 20-foot shrine to the Blessed Mother is still standing in Dudzick’s old neighborhood. And yes, legend had it that the Virgin Mary really did appear to the local barber. Of course, the nuns at St. Pat’s cautioned against the hokey miracle ever being really sanctioned. When the playwright returned home after decades away, hard times and neglect had taken their toll — except for the shrine. A promise from City Hall had spared her the wrecking ball.

Brancato is the founding artistic director of Penguin Rep Theatre, now in its 35th season in Stony Point, NY, and many of his productions have moved successfully to off-Broadway, most recently The Devil’s Music: The Life & Blues of Bessie Smith. Miracle on South Division Street may not be touted to the same heights as its 46th Street Broadway neighbor, Death of A Salesman, nor should it be. It’s as warm and inviting as a weekend trip home to mama’s own Babka cake, after a grueling week in the city. That’s its own kind of miracle.

“Miracle on South Division Street,” presented by Penguin Rep Theatre and Morton Wolkowitz, is currently playing at St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 West 4th Street, New York, NY. For more information visit or call 212-239-6200.

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