A family of psychologically complex, irreversibly dysfunctional, religiously impelled characters inhabits Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Little Flower of East Orange.” Guirgis, whose plays — “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” “Our Lady of 121st Street,” and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” — are notable for their raw, troubling philosophical underpinnings, has come up with another play calculated to keep you in a constant state of uncertainty. That it also resonates from a deeply personal space in the author’s mind is clear. This Labyrinth Theater Company production, under the direction of long-time collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, boasts an excellent cast headed by the superb Ellen Burstyn, as an emotionally scarred mother and Michael Shannon, as her substance abusing, physically disintegrating son.
A prison guard removes the handcuffs from the prisoner and leaves. Danny (Shannon) steps forward in designer Narelle Sissons’s spare, darkly lit (by Japhy Weideman) setting. He addresses us directly as both the narrator and the author of the story he is about to tell. His speech and demeanor as well as the look on his face reveal a man not only wasted by alcohol and drugs but by his inability to either control or neutralize his inner demons. Danny’s unsocial behavior turns out to be the reason for his imprisonment, but it has also proven to the catalyst for him to write a book about himself and his Irish Catholic family. Danny won’t admit to being a writer by profession, only that his book has been published and has earned enough sales to interest the IRS.
Such family issues as depression, alcoholism, abuse, and the need of the perpetrators to define themselves through regrets and retribution, not to mention through the influence of religious intoxication, propel Guirgis’ play. The play also suggests how the behavior of a mother who was raised by abusive deaf parents triggers its own set of problems.
The seriously conflicted alliance Danny has with his unhappy and apparently put-upon sister, Justina (Elizabeth Canavan) is nothing compared to the turbulent confrontations and the layers of guilt that have been heaped upon him by their aging and ailing mother, Therese Marie (Ellen Burstyn).
Dramatized through flashbacks, the action of the play takes place mostly in a Bronx hospital in New York City, where Therese Marie has been taken after a serious fall down a flight of stairs while commanding her wheelchair at the Cloisters. Near and yet not so near death, she refuses to tell the no nonsense Dr. Shankar (Ajay Naidu), or Magnolia (Liza Colon-Zayas) and Espinosa (David Zayas), the glib, friendly and attentive hospital attendants, her name or that of any member of the family. Therese hallucinates about her unhappy childhood and deceased family members, even as other ghosts including Pope John XXIII, Jimmy Stewart and Bobby Kennedy make brief disconcerting appearances.
It takes a bit of trickery but Danny is located in a rehab center 2,000 miles away, where he has begun a hot and heavy affair with Nadine (Gillian Jacobs), a pert little druggie. It seems Therese Marie, a widow, has made a number of attempts to run away and presumably end her life in order not to be a burden to her children. Unable to walk and in constant pain, she would prefer to end her life. There is, however, more to this than her selflessness.
“Little Flower” is a sad and meandering play, but one that also gives us enough contentiousness to keep us in its grip. To her credit as a fine actress who keeps getting finer, Burstyn gets beneath the surface of Theresa’s sweetness to stir up a lifetime of latent needs. Shannon’s performance as Danny ranges from volatile to unstable and back as he challenges his mother’s motives every step of the way. Canavan is splendid as the pathetic unwanted child, who wears her resentment on her sleeve and voices her rage in waves of anguish and hurt. The idea that we can achieve grace through forgiveness and salvation through sacrifice is heady philosophical stuff. Guirgis considers these quests as the empowering and sustaining influence in his very compelling play. HHH