Pain—psychological, physical, emotional—dominates Stephen Adly Guirgis’s wrenching new memory play, The Little Flower of East Orange, which examines in detail the love-hate relationship between a son and his mother. But most dominant in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s production for the Public is a performance from Ellen Burstyn so masterly and intense that it is often uncomfortable to watch. The hulking Michael Shannon as the son, Danny, narrates from prison. Shannon, with an unruly mop of brown hair and a frequent squint, has the weary, lived-in appearance of the drunk and drug addict that Danny is. He wants to tell us about his mother, Therese Marie O’Connor, named for the Catholic St. Theresa, known as “the Little Flower.” Therese (Burstyn) has been found at the bottom of a flight of steps in the Cloisters, her wheelchair turned over, and her memory apparently gone. She is in critical condition in a New York hospital, and orderlies and nurses, particularly one named Magnolia (Lisa Colón-Zayas), help keep her alive.
As Danny describes the slow process of discovering what has happened to his mother, we see in flashback scenes of her childhood, showing that Therese was brought up by a deaf father who was a brutal drunk, yet whom she adored.
As Therese recovers, she and Danny spend more time together, and old wounds are opened. Therese, like most mothers, is both nurturer and oppressor, probing into her son’s life with love and ineptitude, and devoted to her Irish Catholic faith. Inevitably and repeatedly they clash. Danny’s attempts to clean himself up at rehab clinics usually end abruptly after Therese pulls a stunt to get him back to her side. And her hope that he’ll reunite with his former girlfriend grates on him until he explodes. Their relationship is so minutely observed and truthful that it is anguishing to watch, and Burstyn, eyes often red and watery during their powerful scenes, conveys a welter of conflicting emotions.
The play's issues are essentially religious ones: devotion, grace, love, and charity. Does Therese’s father have the right to be forgiven for his actions, which caused her to be crippled for life? At what point does Therese’s unbounded forgiveness toward him distort the facts, and which becomes more important, the truth or a lie? And is her choice of forgiveness toward him the right one? Should she, as Danny insists, have sought therapy to face the truth as he sees it?
Guirgis’s portrait of the family relationships is very strong, as is his sense of the issues, but, although Hoffman gives the hospital an effective atmosphere of bustle and urgency, Guirgis’s attempts to introduce humor into them misfire badly. Ajay Naidu’s Dr. Shankar is used effectively to tweak bureaucracy (he has a caring side as well), but Shankar’s repeated mistaking of Magnolia’s name—calling her Mongolia—is a cheap joke. What doctor from India wouldn’t know that Mongolia is a country and think it’s someone’s name? It’s not like there’s a language barrier.
David Zayas’s foul-mouthed hospital orderly Espinosa also presents problems. He’s alternately bullying and kind, but Espinosa’s persistent vulgarity wouldn’t be tolerated in a real hospital for very long, at least not when he’s flinging it in front of the patients. Guirgis apparently thinks that it’s funny to have Espinosa abuse a man who is keeping a vigil over his dying mother, calling the clueless fellow puto, and he even goes so far as to set up the unwitting mark for a tasteless practical joke.
At other moments the writing is inspired: Danny’s self-sacrificing sister Justina (Elizabeth Canavan, at times implacably furious, at others crisply efficient) reports to Danny that their mother has disappeared in a hilarious sequence that combines speaking and stage direction: “Shreek!, shreek!, sob! sob! DANNY!/Shreek, shreek!, wail, wail! MOMMY GONE!” And frequently there are deftly comic lines in keeping with the characters. As Therese hammers Danny with questions, he says, “Let’s just, uh, move on to some other painful, debilitating subject now, if that’s okay.”
The bickering continues after Danny insists on bringing her home to care for her rather than put her in a nursing facility. Even then she’s difficult, as old people are. Ultimately, the play finds peace for Therese and, for Danny, a deeper understanding of his mother’s life. It’s possible, as the title suggests, that even the most flawed among us may attain grace and sainthood. Despite it missteps, Guirgis’s superbly acted play is a full meal for audiences seeking serious drama.