“Dysfunctional” doesn’t begin to describe the O’Connor family in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Little Flower Of East Orange, now in its West Coast Premiere engagement by the Elephant Theatre Company. Indeed, elderly matriarch Marie Therese Sullivan O’Connor, and her grown son and daughter Danny and Justina are so totally f*cked up as to make Amanda, Tom, and Laura Wingfield seem positively well-adjusted by comparison.

Like Tom Wingfield, Danny O’Connor serves as our narrator and guide to his family’s maladjustment, though his nonstop use of the F-word makes it clear from the get-go that we’re in Guirgis (and not Tennessee Williams) territory. Led on stage in handcuffs, Danny recounts his sister’s hysterical phone call summoning him back to New York from his stay in an Arizona rehab. Danny’s wheelchair-bound mother Marie Therese has been found unconscious near Manhattan’s Cloisters Museum, and younger sister Justina is in desperate need of Danny’s help.

Though its introductory scene suggests that The Little Flower Of East Orange will be Danny’s memory play, much of the first act takes place in Therese’s morphine-addled mind, the bedridden septuagenarian hallucinating about being visited by her deaf father, Jimmy Stewart, Pope John XXIII, and Bobby Kennedy. Indeed, it takes a good deal of coaxing from Therese’s doctor to get her to reveal her name, thereby allowing the hospital to contact Justina, prompting her demand that Danny get his ass back to New York pronto.

Act One fills us in on some important facts about Therese’s childhood. She is, we learn, the child of Francis James Sullivan a brilliant, erudite father who read six newspapers a day throughout his life but had the misfortune to be born at a time where being deaf meant being seen by the outside world as a “dummy.” Filled with rage, Francis James took out all his frustrations on young Therese, his physical abuse eventually leading to her confinement in a wheelchair—and ultimately to a different kind of hell for her two children.

The first act also introduces us to a number of supporting players in Therese’s hospital confinement. Besides Dr. Shankar (whose name the old lady obstinately refuses to remember), there’s orderly Espinosa, nurse Magnolia, David Halzig, the son of Therese’s unseen hospital roommate, and Detective Baker, who’s investigating Therese’s case. (Magnolia stands in for Pope John in Therese’s hallucinations, Halzig for Bobby Kennedy, and the Detective for Jimmy Stewart.)

Though often compelling, and frequently quite funny, The Little Flower Of East Orange does tend to meander, frequently forgetting that it’s Danny’s memory play, most particularly in a terrific but totally extraneous scene between Halzig and Espinosa. Even its considerably more focused second act, which includes a gripping though overlong scene between mother and son, could use some editing. (This is one of those plays that seems to be ending a couple times before it actually does.)

Fortunately, Guirgis has entrusted The Little Flower to director David Fofi, who helmed the Elephant Theatre’s brilliant 2007 production of his In Arabia We’d All Be Kings and makes the most of Guirgis’s latest script. Not surprisingly, Fofi has assembled a topnotch cast for this West Coast Premiere, made even more remarkable by the fact that its leading lady, Scenie-winner Melanie Jones, joined the production only a week before its opening night. (Katherine Helmond’s departure “due to prior contractual obligations” was announced the very day the play was scheduled to go into previews.) That Jones was able to give a pitch-perfect, letter-perfect performance under such hurried circumstances is nothing short of miraculous.

Though a couple decades younger than Therese (who had her children at forty and forty-seven), the marvelous Jones makes you believe in this irascible, annoying, yet somehow endearing character. As for her costar, there’s more than a bit of the young Peter Falk in Michael Friedman’s electric performance as Danny, a cauldron of pent-up anger, frustration, and past hurts.

Marisa O’Brien is terrific as Therese’s feisty younger daughter, a woman who harbors her own share of rage at the testy old woman confined to a hospital bed. (Guirgis has written Justina a great phone monolog which goes something like “Shriek!, shriek!, sob!, sob! Danny! Shriek, shriek!, wail, wail! Mommy gone!!”, which O’Brien delivers with hilarious intensity.) LeShay Tomlinson Boyce is a delight as Jamaican nurse Magnolia, whom Dr. Shankar (an entertainingly full-of-himself Mark Adair-Rios) persists in calling “Mongolia,” to Boyce’s amusing consternation. Kate Huffman makes the most of Danny’s girlfriend Nadine’s brief but outrageously funny drug-fueled sex scene with Danny. Alex Furth (also billed in the program as Alejandro Furth) steals every scene he’s in as impudent male nurse Espinosa. (The Dominican persists in calling Halzig puto, Spanish slang for male prostitute, which he tells Halzig means friend, suggesting that he tell his Latino doorman “Thanks, puto,” the next time he opens the door for him.) Since Halzig is played by the always excellent Elephant staple, actor-director Tom Stancyzk, it seems ungenerous to suggest that his big scene opposite Furth be cut, but as previously stated, it truly has nothing to do with Danny and Therese’s story. Finally, there is a brilliant turn by the always superb Timothy McNeil, heartbreakingly real as Therese’s loving, abusive deaf father, though I fear the reaction of Los Angeles’ vital deaf acting community if word gets out that a hearing actor was cast in the role.

Joel Daavid’s imaginative production design makes great use of the Lillian Theatre’s brick walls in creating an urban environment which blends the realistic and the dreamlike. Matthew Richter’s original music and sound design further enhance Guirgis’s many-mooded piece. Louis Douglas Jacobs designed the play’s many well-chosen costumes. Jack Arky composed the Little Flower Theme. The Little Flower Of East Orange is produced by Lindsay Allbaugh and Tara Norris. Greg Borrud is executive producer. Shannon Simonds is stage manager.

Though not a great play, The Little Flower Of East Orange is a very good one on the verge of becoming something more. Under Fofi’s dynamic direction, and featuring a cast that could hardly be better, the Elephant Theatre Company’s West Coast Premiere makes for a gripping, highly watchable look at a family who give new meaning to the word dysfunctional.

The Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
November 12, 2010

Comments are closed.