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The Little Flower of East Orange

May 2, 2008

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about what happens to people when they stop being children to their parents and unwittingly become parents to their parents. For some people coping with a father or mother suddenly falling ill or having trouble facing retirement, this reversal of roles happens more-or-less overnight. For others, it's a gradual process, a transformation that happens over years of evolution.

A new drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis currently playing at New York's Public Theater brilliantly examines what happens when a couple of siblings go from being dependent on their mother to finding that she's dependent on them.

Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starring Ellen Burstyn, Guirgis' The Little Flower of East Orange delves into the psychological and emotional problems that come with the territory of dealing with elderly parents who need constant mothering and fathering.

The play focuses on the relationship between writer-junkie Danny (a pognantly disheveled Michael Shannon) and his relationship with his mother, Therese Marie (played by a bed-ridden Burstyn.) The two characters never fully understand each other though they come close. I rarely cry at the theatre, but the final showdown between Danny and his mother pretty much did me in. Guirgis does many things very well, but his ability to make characters seem utterly dependent upon one another and simultaneously completely at odds is probably his greatest strength.

The Little Flower is not as strong a piece as Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train in terms of what the play reveals about society. It's also a lot less funny. But this new play is in some ways much more personal.

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