To some degree Stephen Adly Guirgis’ plays have always explored their own idiosyncratic brand of hagiography and theology, examining the cracks in the personas of saints both celestial and earthbound, and exposing the loopholes in orthodox religious notions of redemption and retribution. So in “The Little Flower of East Orange,” the title’s beatification of a figure who appears to be inspired by the writer’s mother — played with immense empathy by Ellen Burstyn — shows clear continuity with his earlier, less directly personal works. And it makes sense that this canonization comes with conditions: Guirgis provides no free pass to martyrdom.
“I’d be so happy if you wrote,” says Therese Marie (Burstyn) to her son Danny (Michael Shannon), who turned fallow after some early promise as a writer. “But not about me,” she continues. “After I’m gone. After I’m gone, open season.” Guirgis has taken that authorization and written a play that’s imperfect and raw but also deeply felt and at times startling in its bruising intimacy.
Stripped of their intellectual agility, their philosophical questing and tough, urban eloquence, Guirgis’ plays can be distilled down to dramatic premises that might be prosaic in other hands: “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” is about two Rikers prisoners grappling with crime and punishment; “Our Lady of 121st Street” centers on an emotionally fraught group reassembled to mourn the dead; and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” is a discourse-heavy courtroom drama — albeit about eternal damnation and with a roster of Biblical and historical heavyweights in the witness box.
Likewise, “The Little Flower” might sound like Lifetime movie fodder: Plagued by drug, alcohol and depression issues, Danny struggles to understand his mother, a seemingly selfless woman who endured a brutal childhood and an adulthood of debilitating pain and illness. She now wants only to embrace death, freeing her children from the burden of her old age and infirmity.
But Guirgis is a playwright of too singular gifts to pen the hackeyed, heart-tugging drama of reconciliation and closure that description might imply. His rough-edged work has a distinctive voice, full of profane, jagged poetry, prickly humor, grimy lyricism and anguish not easily quelled. Not even when the anguish is fueled by love and emotional damage, as it clearly is in this unsentimental treatment.
The play is set mainly in a Bronx hospital where Therese has been taken after tumbling down a flight of stairs at the Cloisters in her wheelchair. Resuscitated after flatlining, she claims amnesia and declines to give her name, drifting in and out of delusional episodes in which she encounters figures from the past — from her deaf, Irish-Catholic father (Howie Seago) to baseballers and movie stars, politicians and popes.
Only after coolly clinical Dr. Shankar (Ajay Naidu) manipulates the truth out of her by hinting at a grave prognosis does Therese reveal her identity. It appears she left home in her nightgown without warning while being cared for by her daughter Justina (Elizabeth Canavan). Danny was away on a stay of court-ordered rehab.
Chopping between Danny’s narration and the present, past and fantasies of Therese Marie in hospital, the fragmented clutter of the first act could benefit from a more streamlined approach than director Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. Guirgis’ collaboration with Hoffman has stretched now over five productions together at LAByrinth Theater Company, so clearly the two creative forces click. But even at his most compelling, Guirgis’ work can give the impression of being a draft away from its ideal form. Self-editing is not his strongest suit. He needs a director able to address his weaknesses of structure and economy.
Hoffman instead plows through, pushing his cast to shouty, abrasive extremes exacerbated by David Van Tieghem’s heady sound mix. And the play’s awkward timeshifts, as well as those between dramatized action and intrusive direct address, are negotiated with messy flourishes that lack fluidity. Narelle Sissons’ cumbersome set of movable opaque panels also gives a cold, mechanical feel that slows the audience’s connection to the characters.
There are beautifully observed passages and pithy characterizations here from LAByrinth regulars Liza Colon-Zayas and David Zayas as the sharp-tongued but compassionate hospital workers who dote on Therese. But elsewhere, the cast of 10 — most of them playing multiple roles — often crowds a drama that at heart is a two- or three-hander.
Even before intermission, however, when Danny and Therese consolidate their positions at the play’s center, the characters begin to exert a grip on the audience almost as vice-like as their hold on each other. This increases in the more linear second act as volatile Danny refuses to let his mother hide behind her endless capacity for forgiveness. He forces her to re-examine her past and her father’s role in events that would have broken most people beyond repair — emotionally as well as physically.
The depth of warmth and understanding Burstyn brings to her role makes it no stretch to believe her Caribbean nurse’s claim, “She have God in her, clear as day.” Burstyn achieves a delicate balance of frailty and confusion with lucid serenity and sly humor, and with her crown of white hair, the actress seems to have grown more beautiful with age. But Guirgis has no interest in simply portraying an angel.
Via Danny’s needling questions, his belligerent determination and explosions of rage — captured by haunted, hulking Shannon in a performance that never stops churning with pain — Therese’s passive-aggressive stubbornness is steadily exposed. Brittle and hysterical, simmering with the resentfulness of a late-in-life child whose awareness of her mother’s vulnerability spiraled not into concern but bitter hurt, Justina contributes equally to show what an exasperating wall Therese’s meekness can represent.
Guirgis appears to be saying that, whether approaching life or death, nobody is entirely blameless, but regardless of that, grace is an omnipresent force. Acknowledging it can be its own reward even in the most troubled existence.