'Miracle' touches on real-life experience

The play “Miracle on South Division Street” holds a special meaning for its author, playwright Tom Dudzick. The story centers on a Catholic working-class family living in a deteriorating Buffalo, N.Y., neighborhood whose lives are upended upon a deathbed revelation from a family member.

Dudzick is from Buffalo, and the play's characters and a central figure — a statue of the Virgin Mary — are based on real people and a real-life statue.

In the play, which opens Nov. 9 at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, mother Clara (Ellen Crawford, best known for her role in television's “ER”), has maintained the faith of her father, an immigrant from war-torn Poland. The father experienced a “miraculous vision in his barbershop,” and erected a statue of the Virgin.

Dudzick, whose autobiographical play “Over the Tavern” launched his successful drama career, grew up in a Buffalo neighborhood much like the one in “Miracle.” And “directly across the street [from my house], in real life, was a shrine of the Blessed Mother,” Dudzick said.

He said the 20-foot-high brick shrine and statue was erected next to a barbershop.

“The story was that in 1950 the Blessed Mother appeared to the barber with a general message of peace on earth, goodwill, etc., and he erected a shrine and had someone sculpt the statue. It was there all our lives.”

As in the play, his family took the importance of the statue seriously.

“We would go to our Catholic school and tell the sisters that we prayed in front of the shrine,” Dudzick said. “They told us ‘Don't do that. It's not a miracle.'”

For director Brian Shnipper — who conceived and directed “Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays,” winner of a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award — “Miracle on South Division Street” has a personal connection to his life too. “The major revelation in the play happened in my family as well,” Shnipper said.

Other similarities to Shnipper's life are that, like the play's characters, he was raised Catholic, and, although he's not from Buffalo, he did grow up in New Jersey.

It wasn't just these personal connections that led Shnipper to take on the play, he said. That it has “strong, funny characters” and a strong plot also attracted the director.

“Tom writes really strong,” he said. “The characters really feel like they come from that place and time.”

Many of Dudzick's plays, if not all, are close to home. They are based on real-life experiences, or, as he said, “I always borrow a little biographical element.”

He believes it brings a fictionalized story “closer to the truth. The more specific [a story element is], the more universal it is.”

The neighborhood where Dudzick grew up has changed greatly: Urban blight has taken over, and the tavern is a parking lot.

“I went to visit, and got all depressed,” he said. “But the statue is still there, looking beautiful. Two people in the neighborhood kept it up. They changed the light bulb, put fresh flowers, cleaned it. There was a furor when the city tried to take it down. They promised never to move it.”

What: Miracle on South Division Street

Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank

When: Nov. 9 through Dec. 13

More info: (818) 558-7000, colonytheatre.org

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LAURA TATE is a frequent contributor to Marquee.

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