The idea of America as a melting pot has been around nearly since our country's founding.
Initially, the idea was that people and cultures from all over the world would come to America and blend into one national identity. Over time, some have revised the metaphor, emphasizing that America's pot is filled not with a homogeneous soup, but one heterogeneous stew, with some cultures maintaining big hunks of identity in the broth.
The question of soup or stew is one humorously implied in "Miracle on South Division Street," Virginia Repertory Theatre's breezy new play at Hanover Tavern.
"Miracle" concerns the Nowaks, a working-class Catholic family in Buffalo, New York. In 1942, according to family lore, the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to Grandpa Nowak, inspiring him to erect a 20-foot-tall statue in her honor. The Nowak family has maintained this shrine ever since, but after a deathbed confession, both the story and the Nowaks' understanding of themselves is suddenly called into question.
While the neighborhood around them may have seen better days, the Nowaks are doing just fine for themselves. Jimmy (John Mincks) is considering proposing to his girlfriend, Ruth (Audra Honaker), who is on the verge of a big acting break, and Beverly (Donna Marie Miller) finally has found a guy who doesn't think she's insane for believing in the shrine. The trio's matriarch Clara (Catherine Shaffner) runs a soup kitchen, and her biggest concern is that Ruth has been skipping Mass. This holiday season would be like any other, except that Ruth wants to tell the true story behind the shrine in a one-woman show and wants her family's permission.
Perfectly paced and humorously executed under Debra Clinton's direction, "Miracle" is a delight as it careens through more twists than an Alfred Hitchcock film. Shaffner continues to have the local market cornered on playing domineering matriarchs, and carries her role easily. With an easygoing and slightly dim-witted delivery, Mincks gets the most laughs as a man trying to marry outside of his faith.
Playing the character who drives the action, Honaker still gets in her share of laughs, and her solo moments with Shaffner are genuinely moving. Though the script gives Miller the least to work with, she gets in her moments, especially when she realizes the shrine isn't what it's cracked up to be. As the backdrop to the action, Terrie Powers' set looks very much like a lived-in kitchen built decades ago.
Usually, this is the time of year when theater companies roll out their most saccharine shows, but the play avoids this pitfall, instead telling a light, original story with plenty of laughs and an undercurrent of acceptance. Whether you're a proponent of soup or stew, "Miracle" is the kind of show most everyone can stomach. S
Virginia Repertory Theatre's "Miracle on South Division Street" plays through Dec. 31 at Hanover Tavern at 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.