Cross “It’s a Wonderful Life” with “Touched by an Angel” and you have “Miracle & Wonder,” Cleveland playwright Jonathan Wilhelm’s drama about a Jewish angel who magically and mysteriously alights on folk with something missing in their lives and finds what connects them.
That angel is Ziv (a kindly John Busser), who looks and talks like a rabbi, speaking in parables and quoting from the Midrash and Kabbalah. Part detective, part guardian angel, part spiritual guide, Ziv is an all-in-one missing persons bureau that reunites broken families and restores them to wholeness.
This world premiere is the first fully staged production of a work developed at Ensemble Theatre’s StageWrites, a program devoted to new work by local playwrights.
It’s three days before Christmas. Bernadette, (an uptight Agnes Herrmann), an obsessive-compulsive kindergarten teacher, and her eccentric mother-in-law, Noreen (the irrepressibly funny Lissy Gulick) are wrapping presents while waiting for Bernadette’s husband, Robert, to come home. Enter Ziv with news of the absentee husband, who turns out to be a serial monogamist who loves and leaves his wives (12 and still counting) but not before absconding with their money.
The mystery thickens when Ziv announces that Robert’s parents are dead, causing Bernadette to wonder whom Noreen is. The rest of the comedy deals with finding that out and determining the provenance of a slew of other characters, all somehow connected, with the mystical Ziv as catalyst.
“Mystery &Wonder” is an all-encompassing patchwork of Jews, Christians, a Jehovah’s Witness, gay and straight, black and white, which tries to be all things to all people.
An unwieldy plot that goes off on too many tangents and lacks focus is its key weakness. At the same time, its principal strength is funny and immensely likeable characters who get under your skin. What the play lacks in structural tidiness it more than makes up for in heart. Solid acting overcomes its rambling and convoluted script.
Director Ian Hinz compensates for awkward scene changes with interludes of caroling stagehands that cheerfully change props guided by a diminutive angel. It’s a nice touch that partially makes up for the clunky framework and is in keeping with the spirit of the holiday.
Each character seems incomplete, and in the words of Bernadette, no one is who he or she appears to be. Ruth (the excellent Anne McEvoy) and Noreen are sisters who haven’t seen each other for years, ever since their parents threw Ruth out for marrying a Catholic and converting. In parallel to Ruth, Luke (a painfully sensitive Curt Arnold) was disowned by his parents when they found out he was gay. Bernadette’s best friend is Malcolm/Polly Esther, (a suitably flamboyant Tim Tavcar), a hospice nurse by day and drag queen at a gay bar by night. Rounding out this family of misfits is Sarah, (Katie Wilkinson), the daughter of a single gay father, and Sarah’s friend, Aliyah (Lauryn Hobbs), a black girl adopted by white liberal Jews. Wilkinson and Hobbs delight as teenagers obsessing over old Bette Davis movies.
The most moving scene is the reunion of Noreen and her older sister, Ruth.
The sibs huddle in bed as they catch up on youthful memories and the paths their lives have taken. Gulick and McEvoy are exquisite, conjuring the sweet pathos and tenderness of their characters in full measure.
Gulick’s spellbinding storytelling, particularly when she reveals the true meaning of the play’s title, is worth the price of admission. It speaks volumes about the relationship between Noreen and Hank, her ranch-hand hubby, whom she expects to be deeper than he actually is.
Even when something is taken the wrong way, something good can come of it, says Noreen, a true believer. Every day, she tries to find some miracle and wonder. It’s a worthy message. Gulick’s spellbinding storytelling is worth the price of admission.
For Wilhelm, a convert to Judaism and member of Kol HaLev, the play is about how we create our own families and, by following things to their source, discover our connections and that we are more alike than different.
WHAT: “Miracle & Wonder”
WHERE: Ensemble Theatre in Coventry Village, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights
WHEN: Through Sunday, Dec. 2. Talkbacks with playwright and director Nov. 24 and Nov. 30
TICKETS & INFO: 216-321-2930 or www.ensemble-theatre.org