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Miracle on South Division Street Explores Family Dynamics, Family Secrets

The Virginia Rep production at Hanover Tavern is sweet and sincere without being sappy.

Jo Rozycki | December 22, 2017

The holiday season often means families get together from near and far and join in celebration of light, joy, peace, and new beginnings. And for many, that tradition is often steeped in religion. Virginia Rep’s Miracle on South Division Street  at Hanover Tavern feels like a momentary glimpse of any typical family’s holiday get-together, with an earth-shattering twist.

Directed by the very talented Debra Clinton, Miracle tells the story of the Nowaks, a quirky Catholic family from Buffalo, NY, led by the matriarch, Clara, played by the hilarious powerhouse Catherine Shaffner. Her three children, Jimmy, Ruth, and Beverly, replicate any sibling dynamic, full of personalized handshakes, joking bullying, and tender embraces.

The Nowaks are known around their working class neighborhood for their statue of the Blessed Mother, which was erected by Clara’s father after the Blessed Mother supposedly appeared to him in a vision in his barbershop. Clara is quite proud of her family’s blessing, and raises her strictly Catholic household to promote the event of the “miracle” to all who pass through. It just so happens that on Christmas Eve, middle child Ruth has a secret she needs to reveal to her family, one that rocks and shakes the foundation of the family to its very core.

Director Debra Clinton does not hold back on the promotion of the family theme in this production. “She did such a great job with letting us explore and play, and then stepping in at the exact right moments to steer us back in a certain direction,” actress Audra Honaker said of the director. The domineering older sister Beverly, played by the hilarious Donna Marie Miller, makes the middle sister Ruth, played by the tender Honaker, sound and feel like what any younger sibling feels like when they have a big announcement to make: underappreciated, unheard, and disregarded. But youngest sibling Jimmy, played by the sweet John Mincks, often comes to his big sister’s rescue, forcing his oldest sister and their commanding mother to listen to Ruth in a time where she desperately needs their attention.

It cannot be expressed clearly enough how perfectly this cast works together. The dynamic the quartet possess strikes a chord with any audience member, since they berate, bicker, and banter with one another like every family does. But any audience can clearly see the arguing and harmless fun is done out of the sheer love the family members have for one another, which translates beautifully on stage. “It’s really a rather lovely show, I think. It’s the way that you would hope that a family would re-congeal after any sort of revelation,” said Honaker.

And that is what runs centrally in this production. During a time steeped with stress, like Christmas, family get-togethers can be extra anxiety-inducing if a big family secret is revealed. Not many wish to be the one revealing the secret, but no one wants to be on the receiving end either. Miracle on South Division Street does a phenomenal job of providing a common family dynamic, rooted in Catholic tradition, that is brought to a dramatic halt by Ruth’s revelation. However, through trust, listening, and acceptance, the family is able to work through the dramatic event with swift, hilarious clarity.

It is worth noting, too, that this show should not necessarily be categorized as a ‘Christmas’ show. “It’s not written that way,” said Honaker. “There’s this 12-page appendix in the back that’s like ‘If by chance you wanted to make this a Christmas show, you change all these lines.’” So those who are hesitant about making the trek for a cheesy family Christmas show can breathe a sigh of relief because, frankly, this is not anything close to that. “I want them to know that it’s going to be hilarious, and it’s fun and they’re going to laugh and have a good time, but also know they will be surprised by things,” Honaker said. “Overall, they’ll have a wonderful positive experience. It’s just really fun.”

Costumes by Marcie Miller Hailey helped pull together the setting and family style. It felt like the audience just picked any average American family to spend the evening with. Derek Dumais’ thoughtful sound design was subtle but deeply appreciated, adding to the often unnoticed elements of family lifestyle. Props to lighting designer BJ Wilkinson for providing a certain warmth to the already cozy kitchen of the Nowaks. Finally, the set design by Terrie Powers brought the whole technical aspect of the production together beautifully. With the already existing exposed brick of the Hanover Tavern, Powers made the audience feel like they were quite literally stepping into the kitchen of the average American family. With a round kitchen table at center, everything from the magnets to the glassware to the family photos surrounding the stage were thoughtfully placed and designed.

Miracle on South Division Street felt like coming home for the holidays. Meeting a family that mimics the typical family lifestyle, dynamic, and traditions felt comforting, but made the chord strike deeper than normal when they reacted to the middle sister’s revelation. And it provides an example that any family would wish to see during a time of surprise. “I think it’s a wonderful example to show the audiences and the world in general that acceptance and love. It’s very timely,” said Honaker. Personally, I laughed hysterically, I shed a couple of tears, and left the theatre smiling and wanting to hug my family members. It may sound cheesy, but the show guarantees a heart-warming evening. You don’t have too many chances left to see Miracle–the production closes on December 31. Tickets are available here.