Were it not for Ellen Burstyn onstage and Philip Seymour Hoffman off, this bickering brood would be as intolerable as the couple that joins you for dinner only to fight through all three courses. But Burstyn’s performance as the title character, aka Therese Marie Sullivan O’Connor, and Hoffman’s direction pinpoint islands of genuine humanity in an acidic and choppy sea of images and concepts that mesh less well than do Therese Marie and her two children.
This is at least partly intentional. Central to this play, as to Guirgis’s previous works Our Lady of 121st Street and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, is the supreme difficulty of direct communication. It can just be speaking different languages, be they American Sign Language, English, or Spanish, with individual words that don’t translate or whole phrases of obscure idiomatic meaning. More important is the rift of words between parent and child, who can spend their lives never fully understanding the times and circumstances in which the other lives.
Whenever Guirgis addresses these problems directly, he reveals sober and seldom-spoken truths about the things we can and cannot say to others. But too often he muddies his message by not providing a consistent vehicle for its delivery.
The last weeks of Therese Marie’s life are presented as a concoction of her son Danny (Michael Shannon), a gifted writer whose one great success has been stained by his drug and alcohol addictions. He envisions flashbacks of sexual escapades with his latest jail-bait squeeze Nadine (Gillian Jacobs) as an encyclopedia-stroking cat-and-mouse game, and phone conversations with his sister Justina (Elizabeth Canavan) as nets in which words, emotions, and involuntary actions are hopelessly intertwined. (“Shreek!, shreek!, sob!, sob! DANNY! / Shreek, shreek!, wail, wail! MOMMY GONE!!”)
Snatches of medical conversation become indistinguishable from memory, as do visions of a kindly black detective (Arthur French) as Jimmy Stewart. Therese Marie’s deaf father (Howie Seago), whose long-ago violent rages contributed to her current fragility (exacerbated by a tumble down the stairs at the Cloisters), bursts on the scene to narrate his role in her development. Justina’s endless Irish violin solo in Therese Marie’s hospital room becomes the manifestation of her rage at the unrequited love she harbors for her mother.
All this is, for the record, just in Act I. That anything at all coheres is the work of Hoffman, who with lighting designer Japhy Weideman gives the slapdash elements a fluid sense of motion that guides you from scene to scene with a minimum of fuss or confusion. Hoffman can’t, however, get them to add up to anything; only late in the second act, when Therese Marie and Danny sort out their rage unfettered by Guirgis’s theatrical filigree, does this feel more like a polished script than a rough draft.
There are pleasures to be found. Here, as in his previous plays, Guirgis demonstrates a gift for uniting characters diverse and sharply enough drawn to merit full-length plays of their own. But because of this play’s wide scope and loose focus, the vivid personalities Guirgis has sketched - including the haughty Doctor Shankar (Ajay Naidu) and Therese Marie’s nurses, Espinosa (David Zayas) and Magnolia (Liza Colón-Zayas) - don’t much support the main story, or resolve into a tight-knit ensemble.
Nor, for that matter, do the actors. Shannon’s got the drugged-out thing down pat, but doesn’t tap into the vital frustrated concern that should make Danny more than a self-absorbed son; Canavan is generally too on the edge of losing control to collapse into the emotional helplessness required of her. Zayas and Colón-Zayas oversell their razor-tongued commentary roles, but do lend a serious dose of spice to the hospital scenes that would otherwise border on the sterile. Everyone else goes for naturalism with various degrees of both unease and success.
Burstyn bridges all these worlds without departing from ours to do it. Her Therese Marie is grandmotherly, but far from withered – every word, every gesture pulses with strength and desire that don’t let us forget that the prone figure fighting and being fought for is someone worthy of respect. Whether wandering through a waking dream with figures like her father or Bobby Kennedy, coping with the real-world discomfort of her confines in a hospital bed, or navigating the treacherous byways of her testy children’s lives in bedside chats the enrage more than encourage them, Therese Marie is a woman almost always in full control of her flesh, blood, and heart.
This play is never better than when describing how Therese Marie’s father, son, and daughter conspire to relieve her of all three. When Therese Marie proves to Danny how an ostensible victim can become a victor, it’s triumphantly speaks volumes about the difference between what we know and what we think we know about those closest to us. If only all of The Little Flower of East Orange were so simple and so clear.
The Little Flower of East Orange