Chicago Theater Review: THE LITTLE FLOWER OF EAST ORANGE (Eclipse Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 7, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

A MOVING PORTRAIT OF A SMALLER SAINT

A show doesn’t—can’t—get truer or richer than this current 140-minute gem at the Athenaeum Theatre. Perfectly concluding an all-Stephen Adly Guirgis season, Eclipse Theatre’s Chicago premiere The Little Flower of East Orange is powerfully personal, authentically intimate, and convincingly detailed—a harrowing look at raw redemption. Solidly rooted in the play’s poles of hardboiled dialogue (that waxes ornately rhapsodic at a wonderful whim) and magic realism (that fits every moment it enlarges), Steve Scott’s incandescent staging is a thing of beauty and a joy forever (or until December 18).

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A New York playwright with quirks to spare, Guirgis’s sometimes capricious characterizations felt irritatingly pat and smug in Steppenwolf’s Between Riverside and Crazy. But this 2008 family drama, originally starring Ellen Burstyn and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is a triumph of truth-telling. It centers on Theresa Marie O’Connor. Named after Saint (“Little Flower”) Theresa, this New Jersey survivor is a bit beatified herself. And Guirgis makes her “miracles” matter.

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As introduced by her tough-loving, hard-drinking, and toxically temperamental son Danny (a powerhouse performance by John Henry Roberts), Theresa Marie (an unimprovably passionate Jeannie Affeider) appears in a Bronx hospital room, a hypothermic Jane Doe who, supposedly attacked at the Cloisters, can’t or won’t recall her name. But, in a kind of cosmic payback, she summons up comforting visions of supporting icons—Pope John XXIII, Jimmy Stewart, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, and Bobby Kennedy. Crucially, among relations, like hapless Aunt Margaret (Jess Maynard) and lost Uncle Benny (John Arthur Lewis), she envisions her dead father Francis James (Michael Stark), a deaf tyro who tested her love to several breaking points.

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Spontaneous and open-hearted despite her protective amnesia and a morphine drip, Theresa inspires unforced affection from her caregivers: Espinosa (Donovan Diaz), a hilariously passive-aggressive Dominican orderly; tough-talking nurse Magnolia (Ebony Joy); and even her officious Indian physician Dr. Shankar (Omer Abbas Salem).

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But, setting apart these affecting encounters, the payoff here is the complex and contradictory ties between Theresa Marie and bad-boy Danny and her all-suffering, chronically insecure, and equally exasperated daughter Justina (Maynard). Bringing along his latest too-trusting girlfriend Nadine (Ashley Hicks), Danny is hungry for grace, even though “I spit in the face of it” because he feels “underserving…and angry, and completely, fuckin’ powerless.” Justina, who wants to plant Theresa in a nursing home once she regains her identity, is far from ineffectual, but Danny’s sister is too mired in self-pity to do what’s right for the people she loves. Danny must become his mother’s parent.

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As, fleshed out by flashbacks, Theresa Marie’s life concentrates toward its end, Danny aches for a clean conclusion. To reach that end, ignoring his own addiction, he’ll sneak his mom some necessary Scotch. He craves a last-minute confession to explain Theresa Marie’s astonishing sacrifices for her father and her kids. When it finally explodes, that showdown delivers electric theater: Roberts and Affelder are as laceratingly exposed as any audience can bear to witness.

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Blending the daffily imaginative language of John Patrick Shanley, the compassion of Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, and the interrogating intensity of David Rabe’s similarly-themed Visiting Edna, Guirgis’s tour de verite hits every mark to examine the forces behind family. Seldom have story and staging seemed so inseparable.

photos by Scott Dray

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The Little Flower of East Orange
Eclipse Theatre Company
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on December 18, 2016
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit Eclipse

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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