A holiday offering at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is a little like the fruitcake that your unmarried aunt insists on giving you each Christmas.
You imagine that all those ingredients would make something great, but in the end it is merely a trifle.
In the case of “Miracle on South Division Street” almost all the ingredients are there.
Four very good actors, led by the always remarkable Raeleen McMillion, , an almost unbelievably realistic and evocative set design by Stephen Hudson-Mairet and props master Meghan Savagian, creative and diligent direction from C. Michael Wright.
You’d think that given that lineup you were in for a very special evening.
Instead I walked away with a slight smile on my face and a hope for something with more…something.
The play, by Tom Dudzik is nothing more than a frothy kind of stand-up routine wrapped around a fanciful story. Everything led up to one one-liner after another. And like most routines, some one-liners were funny while others fell flat.
The story concerns the Noack family – Polish and staunchly Catholic – from Buffalo, NY. There’s Clara (Ms. McMillion), daughters Ruth (Kat Wodtke), Beverly (Greta Wohlrabe) and Jimmy (Josh Krause).
Clara’s late father, a barber, had a vision once of the Virgin Mary. It was such a profound vision that he built a 12-foot statue of her in front of the house, a statue that has become a shrine of sorts with tourists and neighbors dropping coins in while make a wish for an answer to their prayers.
But that’s not the real story, which has been uncovered by Ruth. She’s called a Christmas Eve family meeting to reveal the true story and the changes she’s making.
I don’t want to give anything away, but the real story is full of genuine heart and romance and spirit. The story leading up to the reveal is plebeian in content. There are wildly concocted surprises but they all are just a backdrop to yet another funny line.
Two of the actors in the play carry the thing above and beyond the the material they had to work with.
Ms. Wodtke is turning into a powerful and intelligent actor in her recent appearances on Milwaukee’s stages. She captures the conflict within Kate and the determination to resolve that conflict through the truth, no matter how much it hurts. She is an actor who clearly proves an unshakable belief in “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”
As Beverly, the versatile and perceptive Ms. Wohlrabe, demonstrates that she has not fallen far as a fruit of her blue collar tree. On her way to a bowling match (on Christmas Eve no less) she wears her track suit and her winter hat with an aplomb that is in stark contrast to the tension of her sister.
Mr. Krause is easily the least movable character in the play. He just goes around his life, steadily and carefully. He, though, also harbors a secret, one that is easily guessed at before he reveals it.
One of the surprises in the play is the performance of Ms. McMillion. She is an accomplished actor with an impressive body of work, but here she is unable to turn her Clara into anything more than cartoon stereotype of a Polish joke. Part of it may were lapses in the crisp timing comedy needs and it may well have been an unease with her lines.
This was the holiday offering by Chamber and any holiday offering needs to leave an audience feeling warm and fuzzy. The only real fuzz in this one is the hazy wonder about how what ought to be a good show turned out so ordinary.
“Miracle on South Division Street” runs through Dec. 17 at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
Production credits: Director, C.Michael Wright; Scenic Designer, Stephen Hudson-Mairet; Costume Designer, Debra Krajec; Lighting Designer, Alan Piotrowicz; Sound Designer, Terrance Barrett; Properties Master, Meghan Savagian; Dialect Coach, Tyne Turner; Production Stage Manager, Judy Martel; Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.