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THEATER REVIEW: ion's lacerating “The Little Flower Of East Orange”

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who could roller skate over rooftops,” says Danny (Jeffrey Jones) of his mother Therese Marie (Trina Kaplan).

That little girl of deaf parents grew up with a father who both adored and abused her and the family. Determined to protect her mother and sister Cathleen from his alcohol-fueled rages, she made a bargain which led to a secret she has tried to deny all these years.

Now an old woman, Therese lies in a hospital bed, having been found unconscious in the snow outside New York City’s Cloisters. She is a “Jane Doe,” with no ID and unable to give her name. But she frequently hallucinates about her father Francis James (Walter Ritter) and Bobby Kennedy (Glenn Paris); she even confuses the nurse with Jackie Robinson.

This isn’t the first time Therese has landed in a hospital. Therese’s daughter Justina (Catalina Maynard) has tracked her mother down and notified Danny (in drug rehab in Arizona), who hurries to New York with fellow druggie Nadine (Melinda Miller).

Therese wants to die but church teaching won’t allow her to commit suicide. Danny is both addicted to and mightily annoyed by his mother. Justina is merely angry that Therese never loved her enough, powerfully demonstrated in a surreal scene in which she plays the violin while shouting “If you die, I won’t bury you.”

Danny narrates this Irish family saga in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ lacerating “The Little Flower Of East Orange,” playing through Dec. 8 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX in Hillcrest.

Other characters are just as fascinating. Nurse Magnolia (Yolanda Franklin) is a drill sergeant with a soft heart. Orderly Espinosa (Claudio Raygoza), with a “Ph.D. in bedpans” and an endless stream of four-letter words, is wondrous funny and touching all at once.

Dr. Shankar (Diep Huynh) is tasked with figuring out what to do with the new arrival; Detective Baker (Durwood Murray) with finding out who she is.

This is a fine ensemble effort with outstanding performances from Jones (playing Danny’s contradictions for all they’re worth) and Raygoza, followed closely by Kaplan (is she passive aggressive or just damaged?), Maynard (hurt has turned to meanness for Justina) and newcomer Miller, whose drugged-out Nadine provides great comic relief.

Guirgis, who also wrote “Jesus Hopped the A-Train” and “In Arabia We’d All Be Kings” (both produced locally by Lynx Theatre), has said that “Little Flower” is his most autobiographical play. He has only granted production rights for it three times. Ion worked for three years to secure them.

There’s a lot going on here, and the play seems a bit unruly because of it. It jumps back and forth in time, the tone shifts from heartbreaking to hilarious on a dime and I haven’t figured out what to make of a near-catatonic character named Halzig (played by Glenn Paris), who barely seems conscious most of the time.

But life’s like that, too. If you’re an adventurous theatergoer in search of thoughtful fare you won’t find elsewhere, this is the play for you.

The details

“The Little Flower Of East Orange” plays through Dec. 8 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 pm. No show Thanksgiving Day.

For tickets, call 619-600-5020 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.