Earl Lewin’s Miracle, now playing at Church Hill Theatre, is a poignant family drama that follows a young man from his teens into his retirement years. In the process, Lewin shows us a swath of history from the early 1950s, when his protagonist John is a high school boy in Philadelphia, to some time close to the present day.
Presented by Lewin’s BC Productions, the play is dedicated to the memory of the playwright’s wife, Roberta Lewin, and her belief in “the life-expanding power of the performing arts.” Roberta Lewin died Oct. 6 as the play was in rehearsal. The Church Hill performances are presented as a celebration of her life, in lieu of a more formal gathering.
The play begins with John and his wife Ann cleaning out their attic, in the process unearthing momentos that bring back memories. John is reluctant to part with many of the items – especially a picture of his cousin Betty, whom he hasn’t seen in many years. These memories lead to a series of flashbacks, largely focused on Betty, her sister Dorothy, and their families.
We meet the two girls, along with John’s mother and Aunt Rose, when Betty comes to show her six-month-old son Glenn to the family. But there is already a hint of trouble in the air. Looking at Glenn, John – and other family members, including the father, Betty’s husband Tom – sense there is “something wrong” with the infant. At the same time, we learn that Betty is pregnant again while Dorothy has been unable to have a baby. Dot and her husband Milt have been hoping for a child ever since Milt came back from World War II service but now it’s been six years and still no baby for them.
The situation deteriorates as it becomes clear that Glenn – who never appears other than as an infant in his mother’s arms – has been diagnosed as retarded. “Retarded” – that’s the term used in that era and the word Betty uses to describe her son, though Betty’s mother Rose and sister Dot all hate the word and want to believe that Glenn is fine and probably will “outgrow” any problem. But the doctors all say that Glenn will never develop beyond the mental age of five.
The father soon wants nothing to do with his son. As the months pass, baby Glenn’s disabilities become more evident. Then the new baby arrives and is healthy and normal. Tom begins to push to have Glenn institutionalized. At first, Betty agrees but then Dot, the older sister, questions the decision and asks what will happen to Glenn, now a toddler, if he is institutionalized. Betty is confused – torn between her sister’s and her husband Tom’s arguments. Tom says that they have to think about Tommy, the new baby, and what’s best for him, how to give Tommy a normal life. This conflict shapes the rest of the play.
During all this, John is getting on with his own life – going into the Army for the Korean War, attending college, meeting and marrying Ann, having a family, working a job – and these life events put him on the periphery of the drama revolving around Glenn. The play alternates between scenes with present-day John and Ann talking about the past, and flashbacks in which we see the events they are still trying to understand, 40 or 50 years afterward. As the play progresses, John becomes obsessed with the memory of Betty, and his curiosity about what became of her. He regrets not keeping in touch and wonders if he should have helped Betty more. Was he being selfish, just involved in his own life? He eventually decides to try to track her down, to see if she is still living.
Lewin, who directs his own play, has become one of the landmarks of the local theater scene. His previous work runs the range from light mysteries to broad comedy to touching family sagas. For Miracle, he has brought together an excellent cast including a number of actors who have worked with him in the past, all well known and respected in the local theater scene. If you’ve seen BC Productions’ stagings of his plays Hitched, Orlando Rising or St. George’s Blues, you know you’re in for a treat.
The character of John is played by two actors – Chris Rogers as the mature John, Robbie Spray as his younger version. Rogers, whose many credits include roles in eight other plays by Lewin as well as his being one of the founders of Shore Shakespeare, is just right for the part. He gives the character a nice mix of whimsical humor and serious retrospection. This is a man who is looking back on his life, reminiscing and wondering about the meaning of it all and about all the “what ifs” of his life.
Spray, most recently seen in CHT’s A Flea in Her Ear and 33 Variations, does a nice job as the younger John. He is believable as someone who could grow up to become the older version of himself portrayed by Rogers. Young John is focused on his own immediate problems and concerns while retaining affection for his older cousins. At first, he doesn’t want to see the new baby but then he remembers how much fun he and his cousins used to have, how these older girl cousins were so important to him during the war years when his own older brothers were away as soldiers. Then when he sees the baby Glenn, he becomes concerned about what is wrong and how that will affect everyone, especially Betty who he admired as so lively and fun.
Nina Wieczoreck, who has many local theater credits both on stage and backstage, plays the older Ann. She shows a wonderful combination of warmth and down-to-business seriousness as she herds John through the process of cleaning the attic while providing a patient ear for his reminiscences about Betty and her family.
In the later scenes, after the young John marries, Minnie Maloney plays the young Ann. Last seen in A Flea in Her Ear, Maloney is convincing as the kind of woman who would appeal to the free-spirited John. She shows the humor, kindness, and intelligence that is still evident in the relationship between the older John and Ann. This synchronization of two actors playing the same character years apart is quite difficult but Maloney and Wieczoreck make it look easy. Great job!
Michelle Christopher, a member of the CHT board of directors and a frequent stage manager for local productions, takes the role of Betty. She ably portrays the evolution of the character from a happy, lively young mother to a tense and downtrodden wife, trying to balance life with a demanding husband, and two small children including one with special needs. Christopher handles this demanding role powerfully and effectively.
Peggy Chiras, also a regular in Lewin’s plays, is cast as Betty’s older sister Dorothy, called Dot. Dot is in a difficult situation. She wants to be happy for Betty and supportive of her but it’s hard. Dot wants children of her own and tries to hide her envy of her younger sister who now has two. Dot is also very angry with Tom for not accepting his son Glenn. These emotions are difficult for Dot because by nature she is a very warm-hearted person who wants to help everybody. But, of course, she can’t. Dot handles these contradictions with aplomb although the situation finally begins to take its inevitable toll. Chiras makes this character come alive with everyone rooting for her
The versatile Howard Messick is cast as Milt, Dorothy’s husband, while Steve Hazzard, a regular member of Lewin’s casts, plays Betty’s husband Tom. Both do excellent jobs in their roles – Messick as the supportive husband, Hazzard as the war veteran who came back “changed” and seems to compensate for the trauma of his service by placing impossible demands on his wife.
Two veteran actresses do solid work in minor roles. Bonnie Hill is cast as John’s mother, Elise. She is joined in the play’s early scenes by Kathy Jones as Aunt Rose.
The set is basic but effective – a few pieces of furniture and some movable cubes serve to represent the several locations called for in the script. The costumes were clearly carefully chosen to highlight both the characters’ individual personalities and the fashions of their times. The costumes thus present a progression through the decades – kudos to Wieczoreck for capturing the spirit of the play’s trip through time.
This strong cast makes the play a treat for anyone who follows the theater. Lewin’s script has its moments of overt tension and a few laughs, but the real focus of the play is on subtler relationships between the characters – which means the actors are really in the driver’s seat. And given the long time span covered by the flashback scenes, the main actors have plenty of opportunities to show their characters growing and changing. The play’s final revelation is low-key, but all the more effective for the actors’ strong work in preparing the audience for it.
This is a philosophical, reflective play that explores the attitudes and responses of both individual families and society in general to the problem of the “different” or “unwanted” child. It is often hard to remember that not so long ago, many people reacted by hiding or denying the child. The play also examines the role and the worries and regrets of the person on the fringes of a family drama.
In an interesting parallel, this weekend the two main local theaters are offering audiences plays dealing with the same issue. Friday, November 22, is opening night at Church Hill Theatre for Miracle and at the Garfield in Chestertown, it’s opening night for Annie, the Musical. On a quick glance, the two plays couldn’t be more different – one serious and poignant, the other a light-hearted musical. Yet they explore the same issue – the problem of the “different” or “unwanted” child – the orphan. Are they to be accepted and cherished or ignored and rejected? Institutionalized or given a loving home? The Spy recommends seeing both plays!
Miracle opens at Church Hill Theatre on Friday, November 22 and runs two weekends through Sunday, December 1, 2019. Performances begin at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 (cash or check only) for all performances. For information call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit the Facebook pages for Church Hill Theater or BC Productions.