by Joel Elkins~
As a general rule, plays should be judged solely by the product presented on the stage, but every now and then extenuating circumstances are worth noting. The Little Flower of East Orange, now playing at the Elephant Theatre, presents such a case.
For the play’s first staging outside of New York, Katherine Helmond (of “Soap” and “Who’s the Boss?” fame) was originally slated to play the title character but had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts with a little more than a week to go before opening night. In desperation, director David Fofi turned to Melanie Jones, with whom he’d worked in the past, and asked if she would be willing to step in. Fortunately for all involved, she was. What she managed to accomplish in a mere eight days – both memorizing her lines, establishing her character and rehearsing with the rest of the cast – is amazing. Jones gives a seamless, moving and realistic performance that sets the tone for the entire production.
Jones plays Therese, a middle-aged woman picked up by the police one night near the Cloisters in New York on the verge of death and admitted to a public hospital as “Jane Doe.” From there, the police, the hospital staff and the audience try to piece together who she is and what she was doing wandering the streets at night in the dead of winter. Despite her attempts at evasion, we begin to get a glimpse into her past in Act I through flashbacks, and the little she lets escape during her interactions with others, including the doctor (Mark Adai-Rios), the nurse (LeShay Tomlinson Boyce), the orderly (Alejandro Furth), and the police detective (Kim Estes). What little trickles out during these mostly extraneous interpersonal dynamics represents mere manifestation, not the root cause, of her psyche. This is particularly true when she is tracked down by her two adult children, Danny (Michael Friedman) and Justina (Miras O’Brien). The three of them engage in their own, all-too-familiar, version of interpersonal relationship, a lot of talking and yelling, but very little communication. Filled with deep-seated anger and resentment towards one another, they never really listen to what the other is saying and spend much of Act I (and apparently much of their lives) simply talking past each other. They say “I love you” a lot, but only because it needs to be constantly reiterated.
However, gradually we find out about Therese’s traumatic childhood at the hands of her very proud, very stern and very deaf father (Timothy McNeil), the full details of which are revealed only towards the end of Act II, as the play grows darker and more serious.
All the actors do fine work, particularly Jones, but much of the first act is carried by Furth in the arguably secondary role of Espinoza, whose straight-shooting compassion provides the perfect foil for the pretense and defensiveness that define the family’s interactions. Kate Huffman also gives a strong performance in the minor role of Danny’s “jail-bait” girlfriend. David Fofi directs (in addition to his job of finding last minute leading ladies).
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ script is funny, warm and all-too realistic. He writes from experience. Like Danny, Guirgis never met his grandfather, who was deaf. He admits (rather proudly) that his own family has a tendency to connect through screaming. For his sake, I hope the similarities end there. Little Flower, written from the point of view of the son, demonstrates that children are often third-party beneficiaries to trauma that occurred before they were even born.
As Danny explains during the character’s introductory narration, truth is subjective and fleeting, which is perhaps the point of the play and how it should be viewed. Most people rarely straight-up lie to each other. More often, they simply speak the truth as they see it through their own personal prisms. Consequently, quite often much gets said but very little gets heard. It shouldn’t take a near death experience to make us realize that.
The Little Flower of East Orange plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 pm through December 19, 2010.
The Elephant Theatre is located at 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood (one block west of Vine).
Ticket prices: $25.00 and $30.00
Reservations online at www.elephanttheatrecompany.com or by phone at (877) 369-9112