IF YOU GO
What: Buffalo barber builds a shrine to the Virgin Mary; 65 years later, his family stumbles toward a shocking surprise
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through March 2
Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers
Cost: $40 & $45
Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org
Something else: Free parking across the street
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FORT MYERS — Tom Dudzick, the so-called "Catholic Neil Simon," writes small, intimate plays about the working class families that inhabit his hometown streets of Buffalo, New York. His plays are very Catholic, filled with love and sprinkled with families that put the fun in dysfunctional.
In "Miracle on South Division Street," we find the sturdy, squabbling Nowak clan. Decades ago, as legend would have it, the Blessed Virgin appeared in Grandpa's barber shop. He built a shrine; the local diocese looked the other way.
For 65 years, the family believed. But what really happened on that shelf next to the Mennen Skin Bracer?
"South Division" represents one of the meldings of talent and opportunity that Florida Rep deserves to be known for. All four actors in the show have acted opposite one another at various times, some even in other Dudzick plays. The ensemble meshes seamlessly under director Robert Cacioppo; a big family brouhaha never felt like so much fun.
Cacioppo, who says he feels like Dudzick was writing about his own family, knows every nuance of the material. He understands the sibling rivalries that stretch to adulthood - and how to get laughs from that. And he gets the bedlam of a kitchen table surrounded by an exasperated mother and three bratty adults who have all so far failed to produce grandchildren.
So much of the play's humor comes from the exceptional detail and timing that the cast and Cacioppo bring to the table. Jason Parrish and Michelle Damato sass, then chase each other around the kitchen. Carrie Lund slams three beers in quick succession as revelations about the maybe-not-so-blessed Virgin come fast and furious.
You get the feeling every line has been examined, every phrase parsed and each scene broken apart and put back together again to achieve the maximum comedic lift. Almost every moment seems calculated to engender the greatest possible feeling of giddiness possible in an audience. Where else will lines like "Jesus was Jewish. … It was Jerusalem, Ma. Who do you think was running things over there, the McGuintys?" bring down the house?
One of the neatest directing tricks? Keeping the entire play anchored at the family table, which floats in Tim Bennett's airy-for-Buffalo kitchen. Actors revolve in and around the space, from telephone to fridge to cabinet and sink - but someone's almost always anchored at the table.
"South Division" isn't one of those deep plays. Still, Dudzick hints that hearth and home - the kitchen table and the warmth it represents - might have been yet another miracle that took place on South Division Street.
Carrie Lund anchors this play as earthy Polish homemaker Clara. Hers is a performance that draws upon her own experience as both a mother and the years of baby-sitting hundreds of actors in dozens of shows. That genuine affection comes through on stage.
Lund brings a querulous, slightly wearied sense of weathered but still vibrant life to her matron. Heavy sighs, exasperated looks and "Forgive me, Father" genuflections create a portrait of a semi-content, if not always happy, old dowager secure on her throne. "No, I'm gonna go baptize pagan babies. 'Course I'm free, where'm I join?"
I know that Lund rehearsed "South Division" while performing in "The Little Foxes." Her task is not easy, but repeated stumbles threatened the play's momentum on opening night.
Rachel Burttram adds a fluttering, nervous energy as would-be actress Ruth. Her plan to divulge a long-held secret of the statue's true identity unspools throughout the play, leading to a shocking revelation and then a farther series of bombshells.
Burttram makes the halting, hesitating, anxious Ruth look both believable and charming. Cacioppo's pitch-perfect staging and Burttram's wonderful comic timing make the "surprises" more and more thrilling with each reveal. Delighted giggles and surprised gasps echoed around me on opening night.
Spitfire Michelle Damato proves an inspired casting choice for hyper-aggressive bowler girl Beverly. Just imagine the diminutive actress in a green velour jogging suit slinging around a giant pink bowling ball and doing curls with tiny little hot pink one-pound lady weights. Made you laugh!
Damato plays Beverly at two speeds: loud and louder. Both work. Loud is stealing the strawberries and the Triscuits. Louder is getting a beer at 11:45 in the morning. Hers is a fun, funny character played to the hilt for laughs by an actress having far too good a time on stage. Watch her - if for the fistful of funny faces alone.
Jason Parrish puts on a Buffalo Bills tee and plaid to become garbageman Jimmy Nowak. He's dating a Jewish girl - and that ain't so kosher. Parrish delivers marvelous comic timing, amusing facial expressions and a giddy excitement.
Parrish's natural theatrical abilities - silly voices, wicked mimicry - make the show funny, without question. Still, it is sometimes a bit difficult to imagine his particular character throwing cans of trash around on the mean streets of Buffalo.
Bennett's set contorts a kitchen around multiple walls. Windows allow a peek through to the FOR SALE signs in houses and stores opposite. Wallpaper that died of shame in the 1970s crawls skyward in shades of beige. Representations of Christ in every medium from decorative plate to crucifix dot the walls. Felix the Cat tick-tocks the show in real time with his black tail.
Costumer Roberta Malcolm wins my heart for the green velour jogging suit and pink accessories that Damato sports. I can understand the hippie, bohemian vibe for Burttram's Ruth, but the odd black shoes mystified me. Points too to Kate Smith for digging out "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and various polkas.
Laughs come quickly and easily in this charming, cheery tale of a family uncovering its past. Look for Burttram's chirpy, gawky take on Ruth. Cheer for Damato's furiously aggressive Beverly. And most certainly admire the deliciously kitsch mixture of retro '70s decor and sincere but truly tacky religious arcana. Think of the "All in the Family" set attacked by tie-dyed Precious Moments figurines. On acid. Something like that.