If you don’t want to see Ellen Burstyn lying in a hospital bed, you may not want to sit through Stephen Adly Guirgis’ new play “The Little Flower of East Orange”. But the amazing actress, looking her years, still exudes the innocent charm and eager optimism that made her performance in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” so unforgettable.
As in her Oscar Award winning role, Burstyn plays a woman who can’t fully escape a history of abuse. In “Little Flower”, the cause seems to be lost in “Amnesia Mysterioso” as it’s called. No amount of questioning seems to reveal why the elderly woman’s wheelchair took her for a tumble down a full flight of stairs at the Cloisters, or even how she got to be in the wheelchair in the first place.
Fortunately, she’s surrounded by some humorous characters including Espinosa, a surly hospital orderly crisply portrayed by David Zayas, and by her Doctor. In this role, Ajay Naidu’s wounded pride reveals his egotism as well as his humanity. Despite ethnic diversity which gives the story contemporary urban life, the writing is terribly uneven. Too often the dialogue is belabored as in the play’s penultimate scene where Danny interrogates his mother until she finally confesses, two hours into the play, to the cause of her condition.
Guirgis’ characters are self aware enough to recite the Serenity Prayer, but not yet ready to surrender their codependence. Sadly, the themes are repeated without much subtlety – family guilt, addiction, denial, the need for resurrection and the ultimate realization that the resolution lies within oneself.
As written, the morphine addicted mother, Therese, carries shades of Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. The intentions here are lofty even though the execution isn’t – shifting between hospital scenes, episodic flashbacks of Therese’s youth, her current morphine-infused hallucinations, and her son’s demise into drugs. To make matters even more complicated, the tale is narrated by her son. Much like Tom in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”, Danny moves physically away from the woman who plays the central role in his life. But he can never truly leave her behind.
As directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman the acting is in your face, much the way he’s created many a role in movies, most recently “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”. It leads to some wildly fueled emotional scenes, particularly when Michael Shannon as Danny holds his disbelieving head in his hands. But the greater part of disbelief here belongs to the audience for sitting through 2 ½ hours of lugubrious drama!
By: Isa Goldberg
The Little Flower of East OrangeLABrinth Theater Co
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street @ Astor Place, East Village
Running Time 2 Hours 20 Minutes
1212 967- 7555
Runs through May 4, 2008