Every family has its stories.
The Nowaks of Buffalo have a doozy.
In Tom Dudzick’s heartwarming and clever comedy, “Our Lady of South Division Street” — getting its world premiere at Stony Point’s charming Penguin Rep through June 7 — Clara and her three children live in the shadow of that story.
More specifically, they live in the shadow of a small shrine that was built to mark the day when, as they repeat to passersby in what they have come to call “the statue speech,” “the blessed Mother appeared” to Henry Nowak, the family’s patriarch, a barber just off the boat from war-torn Poland in 1944.
As a girl, Clara embraced “Papa’s miracle” and even wrote to the pope to get him to validate the event, something the parish priest and “those almighty nuns” had declined to do.
Her letter was returned, postage due.
Still, Clara knows what she knows.
“If papa says the holy mother came to his barbershop, she did,” she tells her kids. “We were chosen special.”
With such a blessing come certain responsibilities.
Clara cooks for the homeless, soups “prepared on holy ground.”
And there’s the upkeep of the shrine, changing the lightbulb, dusting the statue and picking up the change that is deposited in the hope of a miracle.
Some prayers have been answered, like when the fungus on Mrs. Cavenaugh’s foot cleared up.
But the blessing also brings a burden for the Nowak children: Ruth, Beverly and Jimmy. Giving the statue speech means taking the ridicule of nonbelievers.
Clara clings to her faith that one day those folks who snicker will come to believe as she does.
Over the course of “Our Lady of South Division Street,” Clara’s faith is shaken and transformed in a rollicking comedy where one revelation builds on another to an unexpected and thoroughly satisfying conclusion.
Directed by Penguin artistic director Joe Brancato, Dudzick’s play starts out deceptively slow, with a lot of ground to cover. In retrospect, what seems like a slow setup is akin to the first big hill on a roller-coaster, the one that will send the car careering through twists and turns and loop-the-loops before welcoming excited riders back to earth.
The final moment of Act 1, arriving just 50 minutes after the lights come up, generated gasps in a preview crowd Friday night and sparked all kinds of intermission conjecture. Act 2 picks up right there and, 40 minutes later, the audience — rewarded for taking the ride — leaves, having been genuinely surprised by a well-told story. And like that roller-coaster, there might be those who want to ride again, so best to order tickets before it sells out.
Dudzick, who lives in Nyack, is a celebrated Buffalo playwright whose writing is efficient and natural with few syllables wasted. He says he based his play on an actual shrine that still sits in his Buffalo neighborhood, called The Hydraulics after the hydraulic plant that once drove the city’s commerce. The shrine was the inspiration to create the fictional tale we see on the intimate Penguin stage.
It is the ideal play to kick off the 32nd season at the delightful barn theater in Stony Point, where new plays are born and the audience is in on the delivery.
Joseph J. Egan’s set is appropriately dated, with bric-a-brac adding a layer of authenticity. This could be my Aunt Mildred’s kitchen, if Egan had added the felt cow on the door of the fridge that reads, in macaroni letters, “Holy cow, are you eating again?”
Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes are spot-on, with Clara’s housedresses a throwback to another day.
Director Brancato has a top-flight cast, each of whom brings that Buffalo inflection to the stage.
Penguin regulars will recognize Andrea Maulella (Ruth) from “The Vows of Penelope Corelli” and “Centennial Casting.” As Ruth, an aspiring actress, Maulella is steadfast and focused, clearly an outsider in her own family. When she utters the words “here’s the thing,” the roller-coaster begins its thrilling descent. Maulella is an actress of considerable powers, nuanced and thoughtful. We see the wheels turning in her head. We feel for her.
Stony Point audiences may also remember Liz Zazzi as Beverly. She starred recently in “Ten Percent of Molly Snyder” and “Tour de Farce.” Here, she’s the blue-collar, no-nonsense sister who calls it like she sees it and is quick to stir things up. Beverly’s certitude mirrors Ruth’s doubt. These sisters don’t have a lot in common, except for that shrine on the front lawn.
As their kid brother Jimmy, Rusty Ross brings a quirky nonchalance that is likeable and endearing. Jimmy is more than willing to sit back and let the girls fight it out, getting in a few verbal jabs of his own now and then. Until he sees that chance, he’ll keep on keeping on.
Peggy Cosgrave plays Clara as a mix of her children, displaying Beverly’s certainty, Ruth’s doubts and Jimmy’s go-with-the-flow outlook. Clara bounces from one revelation to the next, her world turned upside-down, and Cosgrave delivers on that.
The final stage picture affirms a new kind of faith, a new reality, a new Peggy.
A new lady on South Division Street.
Photo by Kerwin McCarthy: The cast of the world-premiere production of “Our Lady of South Division Street” is, from left: Andrea Maulella (Ruth), Rusty Ross (Jimmy), Peggy Cosgrave (Clara) and Liz Zazzi (Beverly).
‘Our Lady of South Division Street’
Where: Penguin Repertory Company, 7 Crickettown Road, Stony Point.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 7.
Tickets: $32, with discounts for those 30 and younger and in groups of 10 or more. A reduced-rate matinee at 2 p.m. today, tickets are $16.