Monday, April 21, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Five, "The Little Flower of East Orange" and "Top Girls"

A theme seems to be developing for this trip: Another Wounded Family. After "The American Dream" and "The Sandbox" took the very real problem of dealing with aging parents to absurd dimensions, there was a brief sojourn into HappyEndingLand with "Cry-Baby," before another descent into dysfunction with "From Up Here," the story of a family dealing with a profoundly disturbed adolescent and his profoundly disconnected mother. Sunday the theme continued with two more plunges through the guardrail into the abyss of family insanity.

"The Little Flower of East Orange" might have been the most challenging play of the trip for me, simply because it takes place in the same Catholic milieu of my childhood. However, even though my mother has a few phrases in common with Therese, the mother at the center of this drama, I could NEVER imagine speaking to her in the way her son Danny does. Danny claims this story is his, but he is clearly deluded -- this one is all about Mom. Therese is both mother and martyr, Mary and Christ in the same body.

At the top of the show, Therese has gone missing. We know she is a Jane Doe, lying in a hospital unconscious while her two children (the aforementioned Danny -- who had just abandoned rehab in Arizona -- and somewhat more dutiful daughter Justina) search the city for her. When she finally regains consciousness, however, she refuses to give her name. (On reflection, if my mother did something like that, I think I might be motivated to speak a bit sharply to her.)

However, it's hard to blame Therese entirely for her inaction; she does, after all come from Another Wounded Family. She lives in the shadow of a towering patriarch, a violent mute alcoholic who vented his rage at the injustice of his life on the weakest of those around him. But like the martyr Therese is, no blame is delivered to the long-gone father, and she sublimates all her rage into herself in order (she believes) to protect her children. Unfortunately, children are more intuitive than that, and since Mom won't take on the pain and face the real work of healing this wounded family, they must attempt to carry a load beyond their capacity.

This sense of burden, of carrying a weight exceeding one's capacity is felt throughout the play. Every member of the family has his or her own passion to suffer through. Each carries a cross to Golgotha -- but none do it with the grace of the non-family members in the cast, specifically the two nurses who care for Therese in the hospital. Espinoza, a male nurse from Mexico and Magnolia, a black woman have very different approaches to caregiving, but both are passionate and committed to the work they do. They carry their own crosses as well as those of their patients. Espinoza provides much of the comic relief with his no-nonsense patter, and his presence on stage is always welcome.

Michael Shannon broods and rages brilliantly once again, here playing Danny, the dissolute son with a wasted talent. He was Tony-worthy in "Bug," but I'm wondering if he ever plays a hinged character. Ellen Burstyn is quiet and focused as Therese, but she didn't overly impress. Acting is hard, but I think it's even harder when you have to play the role entirely on your back in a hospital bed.

"The Little Flower of East Orange" is directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he does an excellent job of keeping all the levels of the rich characters created by Stephen Adly Guirgis in play. Nothing lags, and nothing is lost, but he allows enough inconsistency of tone to come through and weaken the overall effort.

"Top Girls" is a revival of a Caryl Churchill play from 1982, focusing on feminist issues. The play itself raises interesting issues and offers several insights (at least from a male perspective) on the challenges facing women in a patriarchy. The cast is excellent, including one of my favorites, Martha Plimpton, but the theater is unfortunately much too large for such an intimate play. On top of this, the sound is awful. Combine this with the fact that many of the characters (at least in act one) speak in accents, and "Top Girls" is almost incomprehensible -- but not for the usual reasons.

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