Sunday, May 04, 2008

Passing Generations

"The Little Flower of East Orange" co-presented by LAByrinth Theatre and the Public Theater on the Martinson Stage, May 3, 2008

(photo: Monique Carboni)

Steven Adly Guirgis' new play is about to close its run at the Public. It's a compelling story with some terrific performances.

Danny (Michael Shannon) opens the play in handcuffs, presenting the story as a memory. He's an alcoholic and drug addict, at one time a successful writer but has been unable to repeat his early success. He tells the story of a girl "...who could roller skate on rooftops...," his mother Therese (Ellen Burstyn) who was raised by deaf Irish immigrant parents during the Depression. Her father Francis James (Howie Seago) falls to the Irish stereotype of proud, drunken and abusive. His abuse leaves his mark primarily on Therese, who spends most of her adult life as an invalid. Tired of being a burden on her children, Therese takes off in a nightgown in her wheelchair and topples herself down some park stairs, refusing at first to identify herself to the hospital staff when she regains consciousness. Eventually, the doctor (Ajay Naidu) dupes her into revealing her name and contacts her daughter Justina (Elizabeth Canavan), who tracks down Danny in rehab in Arizona to return to NYC. Dysfunction only begins to describe the family bond.

Caring for her in the hospital are nurse Magnolia (Lisa Colon-Zayas) and orderly Espinosa (David Zayas). They begin by sparring over the care of patients (she cares, he's bitter because of the poor pay rate). Both become very protective of Therese once she comes to. This occupies most of Act I.

Once Therese's children arrive, Act II the memory narrative seems to vanish with a very linear, almost traditional approach to story-telling. During this act, we learn much more about Therese's life and tribulations with her father, finally learning of the extent, impact and the ultimate cost to Therese. Danny forces this confession from her, hoping she will love herself as much as he loves her, but her loyalty and respect for her father prevents the catharsis from completing. The confession is only painful for her as she refuses to blame her father for the physical and emotional pain he caused.

Mr. Guirgis has managed to capture a very unique perspective of the generation represented by Therese. Late in the second act, Therese (Ellen Burstyn) talks about her physically abusive father with such a sense of love and respect for a man who brought her such physical pain. It reminded me very much the way my mother still speaks of her parents (though the physical abuse was never a factor for her). It was a time for children when parents were just parents, not friends. Children knew their parents loved them, whether they said it or not. Parental expectations for children to behave and strive for achievement was understood. A disgusted look of disappointment was much worse punishment than a spanking or a lecture. Danny never makes this connection, very much the same way that Therese never links her father's actions as being responsible for the physical pain she endured most of her life.

Mr. Shannon's performance as Danny is a fearless demonstration of a man with demons, some of which he's trying to exorcise, others he just can't approach. It's also a loud performance, since his point-making technique is usually shouting.

Ms. Burstyn's Therese is both manipulative and heart-breaking, particularly in her co-dependency with Danny. I'm glad I've finally gotten to see her perform on stage - it's a truly remarkable performance of talent and skill.

Mr. Zayas' Espinosa is another performance of note. Full of bravado and braggadocio, his loud complaints about the low pay and hassles of troublesome patients are a facade over a caring and thoughtful man. A particular moment of note was a scene in which he talks the son of another dying patient off the ledge of the hospital roof - saintly bullying, you might say.

The rest of the cast was pretty uneven. Ms. Canavan's Justina was little more than histrionics and shrieking, never quite reaching believability. Mr. Naidu's doctor barely achieves a second dimension. Mr. Seago's Francis James had some very nice moments, notably a scene when he learns that Therese as a young woman might never walk again.

I don't have documentation of it, but it's my understanding that Mr. Guirgis is in the habit of beginning rehearsals for his plays before they are finished. That seem evident here in the stark difference in tone between Acts I and II. He has left a couple of interesting moments unexplored. For example, when Danny arrives at the hospital for the first time, he's accompanied by Nadine (Gillian Jacobs in a very underwritten role) another escapee from the rehab center. She sees the same visions of Francis James that Therese does, but it only happens once and she's quickly banished to off-stage references, never to be seen again. Also missing were Therese's husband and mother. These felt like pretty large gaps to me.

Director Philip Seymour Hoffman has made the results as cohesive as possible. He's extracted fine performances from Mr. Shannon and Ms. Burstyn and keeps a compelling pace.

Narelle Sisson's set makes clever use of translucent panels that evoke both an intensive care setting as well as effective screens for shadows and projections, complemented nicely by Japhy Weideman's lights. Mimi O'Donnell's wardrobe was serviceable and appropriately unremarkable.

This was my first LAB/Public show. I look forward to the next.

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