Lump of Coal

As Christmas gifts go, Miracle & Wonder leaves a lot to be desired

Miracle & Wonder Through December 2 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930

There's always a need for a good new holiday play, since everyone's seen the neurotic, Billie Holiday-singing elf named Crumpet a jillion times, and Scrooge & company even more than that.

So Ensemble Theatre is to be credited with trotting out a new entry in the genre, Miracle & Wonder, a play developed through their laudable StageWrights playwriting workshop. It's a comedy dripping with Christmas-time atmospherics and tender references to non-traditional family values. In short, a play one would love to love.

Written by local playwright Jonathan Wilhelm, this world premiere has isolated moments of insight and brief bursts of humor. But the overall package is so fragmented and riddled with basic scripting missteps that, instead of a breezy ride across glistening snow, it becomes a hard slog through deep slush.

All the play's motivations are in the right place as the script tries to capture the "Modern Family" TV show vibe. This includes gays and straights of different generations finding a way to cobble together seemingly fractured families that actually function due to deep affection.

Trying to channel that formula, this play centers on Bernadette (Agnes Herrmann), an anal-retentive woman (she irons her used gift wrap) whose frequently traveling husband, Robert, turns out to be a serial bigamist. Her mother-in-law Noreen (Lissy Gulick), living with Bernadette, has her own secrets — including a long-lost sister, the recovering-from-surgery Ruth (Anne McEvoy), who finds out about Bernadette thanks to a Jewish angel named Ziv (John Busser).

Robert is currently on the national news, barricaded in a hotel room in a standoff with police, while Bernadette and Noreen drown their sorrows with the help of hospice worker Malcolm (Tim Tavcar), who in his spare time transforms himself into a drag queen dubbed Polly Esther (cue the surefire laffs!).

When not lamenting her recently removed uterus, Ruth plays surrogate mom to middle-aged Luke (Curt Arnold). He's a gay man who is the dad of teenage Sarah (Katie Wilkinson), who in turn has assimilated her dad's love of old movies. Sarah's best friend is classmate Aliyah (Lauryn Hobbs), an African-American girl adopted by white Jews.

In this largely talented cast, eight is not only enough, it proves to be way too much. Not because a play can't tolerate that many oddball characters, but because the playwright keeps them all isolated for too long in separate scenes at different places.

These beautifully bent and dented individuals beg to be thrown together immediately, to bounce off each other, and let the sparks fall where they may. Instead, Wilhelm crafts airless, discrete scenes and slowly doles out dutiful expositions for each.

This violates another key rule of play construction: Don't have the action take place offstage. Most of these people drone on about things that happened in the past, relating stories instead of acting them out. This makes the two-hour play, under the direction of Ian Hinz, decelerate to a lurching grind.

Certainly, Wilhelm has a whimsical, sometimes deft sense of humor. But many of the scenes play like favored riffs (on garage sales, on praying, on Bette Davis movies) instead of character-driven moments. And with virtually no onstage tension among the characters, it all feels like eight people in search of a plot.

Clearly, the device of angel Ziv, who touches many of the other folks with his prepackaged wisdom, is supposed to tie it all together. But despite Busser's best efforts, this angel is no Clarence. Without his own backstory and burdened with mini-lectures, Ziv is simply a ham-handed playwriting device come to life.

And it's one more symbol of a show with lovely intentions but without the authorial skill to bring it off.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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