5:30 a.m., Feb. 22
The Little Flower of East Orange at Ion Theatre
"Don't get old, Nadine," says silver-haired Therese, hooked to intravenous painkillers on a Bronx hospital bed.
"I don't think I'm headed in that direction," replies young Nadine, who's been free-basing rock cocaine six days straight.
She rode cross-country from Scottsdale with Therese's son, Danny. He was in rehab for alcohol, drug, and psychological abuse. Back on the East Coast, he's back to old habits, and to the woman who has driven him stark raving mad.
Practically everyone in Stephen Adly Guirguis' The Little Flower of East Orange is self-medicating. The problems, which go back generations, return when the pain-killers stop.
The title sounds gently spiritual, with echoes of St. Therese of Lisieux ("the Little Flower") or the Fioretti of St. Francis. The play is not. Manic emotions sprocket throughout - here a blast furnace, there a meat locker - and it flits from scene to scene in a heartbeat (the play also has lulls, made more so by the pyrotechnics).
The through-line is familiar. Call it "sins of the grandfather." He adored/brutalized his daughter, Therese, with love and "fists of fury." She in turn made warped sense of his contradictions, and has carried a grave secret on her broken back. A final confrontation with Danny will reveal the mystery, if not solve the problem.
Therese wants leave the world but can't commit suicide because her religion forbids it. So she wheel-chaired herself through the snow in the dead of night. Ergo the hospital bed.
In his preface, Guirgis makes an autobiographical connection: "I was smoking a cigarette and freezing my ass off outside a hospice in the Bronx where my mother...was rapidly dying of cancer, and where I was...very angry and sad and inconsolable and alone."
Danny - i.e. Guirgis - narrates the story of a dutiful son more addicted to his mother than to drugs and liquor. Some see her as a relentlessly giving saint. Danny's version, which he begins in handcuffs after a bar fight, spray paints her halo with graffiti and four-letter words.
Ion Theatre should hang a sign outside - Caution: this play un-contains rage. In the first act, Guirgis goes out of his way to offend even hardened sensibilities. But even though Little Flower often feels beyond the author's control (and may be more pulverizing than profound), Ion gives it such a stark intensity, it takes audiences places where local theaters fear to tread.
Jeffrey Jones excels as Danny, for whom telling the story re-opens a chamber of horrors, and who wages a civil war between stifling and releasing emotions. Trina Kaplan gives Therese a tender gruffness (she may be, as others say, a passive-aggressive narcissist after all). The ensemble cast ranks among Ion's finest: especially Claudio Raygoza's blunt, funny Espinoza, a minimum-wage intern with a "PhD. in bedpans," Yolanda Frankilin's nurse Magnolia, whose toughness has a tender lining, Katalina Maynard's Justina, Danny's smoldering sister, and newcomer Melinda Miller's Nadine, from whose drugged stupors emerge hilarious lines.
Special mention to lighting designer Karin Filijan. She sets the place for this cue-thick play and fills the stage with clouds and shadows and just a hint of grace.
More like this:
- Last Call: The Motherfer With the Hat at Cygnet — June 17, 2014
- Full, vivid authenticity — May 27, 2014
- Hilarities and incompletions in 2012’s theater productions — Dec. 26, 2012
- Craig Noel Award nominees, part two — Dec. 22, 2012
- In the Wake at San Diego Rep — Feb. 18, 2012