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Doug Shanaberger
interviews playwright tom dudzick

Little Lake Theatre
"Miracle on South Division Street"
May 20, 2013

By Doug Shanaberger

Similar to playwrights such as William Inge and Beth Henley, Tom Dudzick writes what he knows. And what he knows are people who are endearing, idiosyncratic (in a good way, of course) and, most of all, relatable. It doesn't matter if you weren't raised in the Catholic faith, as his characters typically were. It's of no importance if you're not from New York, territory that sparks Tom's imagination much in the same way that it galvanizes Woody Allen and Neil Simon.

"His characters seem like people who could live next door. They're real, they're down to earth," said Sunny Disney Fitchett, the artistic at Little Lake Theatre, which produced Tom's memorable coming-of-age comedy "Over the Tavern" in 1998 and again in 2007.

This week, Little Lake revisits the world according to Tom Dudzick with the local premiere of his most recent effort, "Miracle on South Division Street," directed by Jena Oberg and starring Martha Bell, Gregory Caridi, Liz Roberts and Jennifer Sinatra. The play takes place in a Buffalo neighborhood, where the Nowack family "keeps the faith," you might say, as caretakers of a shrine that commemorates a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Yes, it's a comedy, too, and was praised last year in The New York Times as "sprightly and gentle." The production at Little Lake opens May 23 and runs through June 8

Early this week, I talked to Tom by phone about "Miracle on South Division Street" and a few other topics close to his heart, including growing up in Buffalo, trusting the audience and---believe it or not---life on a show boat.

Tom, theatergoers in the Pittsburgh region know your plays and like them. Have you visited this area?

Pittsburgh, yes ... good heavens, yes. Your Pittsburgh Public Theater did my play "Over the Tavern" before it had much exposure beyond New York, and it ended up breaking the theater's box office records for a non-musical production. That was when the play was fairly new and I needed to learn from audiences whether or not I really had something with it. Then the Public went on to do another play of mine, (the "Over the Tavern" sequel) "King o' the Moon."

I guess one of the more exciting aspects of being a playwright must be finding out that your work affects people in ways you didn't anticipate.

Well, for a while, it's all in your head. You start the play, you stick with it, it's on paper, and you think "If it works for me, if I trust what I'm doing, I have to think it's going to work for other people, too." And then it's still a surprise when audiences respond to it, when you look at it for the first time on stage and you see the play the way the public sees it, and you realize "Okay, this is what I have."

You've written 11 plays, including "Miracle on South Division Street," which Pittsburgh audiences are seeing for the first time at Little Lake. You truly are a playwright who makes a living being a playwright, something quite rare in today's culture.

And I'm not writing big Broadway hits. I just keep doing what I do, what I have been doing for a long time. With each play, I discover through word-of-mouth what strikes a chord.

What do you want audiences at Little Lake to know before they see the play?

It's about the uncovering of mysteries and secrets in a family, and it's also about an actual landmark in the neighborhood where I grew up---a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary---which is still there after all these years, preserved, even though the neighborhood itself has been decimated.

How did you feel about the Off-Broadway production that opened last year?

I liked it and the handful of people who saw the play liked it. (Laughs) It was staged in a tiny theater, and God bless the producers ... I mean, they're in the business of getting the financing for plays, and that's not easy to do. It ran for 10 weeks in New York, and then other theaters took an interest in it, including the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Canada. Now I understand that it's going to tour the Canadian provinces.

Is there a particular reason why several of your plays deal with religion and religious education?

I did have a religious upbringing, the same as many of my characters had, at home and in Catholic school. Very traditional. I even thought about becoming a priest until I met Cindy Sowinski in the 6th grade, and of course, that plan went right out the window. (Laughs) But that was my background, and it was inevitable that religion would play a major role in my work. Not in every play, though. I wrote "Don't Talk to the Actors," a backstage comedy, because my wife said to me, "Can't you write something that's just funny?" I had a good time writing it.

How did you begin your career in the theater?

Back in the '70s, after I had graduated from college and was working in a ketchup factory while trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, the brother of a friend of mine bought a show boat, and he said to me---I think he saw me as kind of flamboyant or theatrical---he said, "I want to hire you to do dinner theater on my boat." He wanted me to handle the whole thing: write the shows, produce them, direct them, supervise the music, everything. And I did it, and it wasn't long before I could say "Son of a gun, this dinner theater thing has really caught on." Later, I moved to New York because, by then, I had the confidence and enough experience to think of myself as a playwright.

You must be the last person in the world who got his start on a show boat.

Sounds like Vaudeville, doesn't it?

What are you working on now?

Another play, and because it's in the early stages, there's not much to say about it except that what I write will be inspired by my immediate family---my wife, my two children---which is a departure for me since a few of my earlier plays were inspired by my life when I was growing up.



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