Heavy subject matter in The Little Flower of East Orange, playing at Toronto’s Unit 102 Theatre
There’s a hollowness at the core of The Little Flower of East Orange. (Currently playing in rep at Unit 102.) This is by design: Little Flower is about heroin addicts, faithless healers, and a septuagenarian whose life depends upon denial and self-repression. It’s gotta be served cold.
We’re talking hardboiled, experimental theatre without any of its edges sanded off, and Column 13, a young company with a strong background in precisely this type of cold, alienating, thinkity-think drama, are in a unique position to explore this opportunity. And when it works, it works.
Several members of the company turn in great performances. Chemika Bennett-Heath and Zach Smadu, as nurse Magnolia and hospital orderly Espinosa (respectively), play off each other and the rest of the cast, and clearly relish sinking their teeth into a pair of fun little roles. Brandon Thomas, as prodigal son Danny, successfully channels the combination of self-reliance and self-pity that this difficult part requires. And Vanessa Trenton, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in the first act, turns a minor character into a major presence on the stage and in the story.
But the play really turns on one character in particular: the titular Little Flower, Therese Marie. And Meghan McNicol, who plays the role, can act. But, well.
Therese Marie is meant to be a study in constant agony: in nearly 60 years of chronic and debilitating pain, in perseverance through one of the most severe forms of parental abuse imaginable, in decades of accumulated Catholic guilt, in her failure to produce stable and healthy and independent children, and in the knowledge that, no matter how she tried, she would never be the daughter her father–the figure who towers over her life and still guides every word and action–wanted her to be.
It seems to me that expecting a twenty-something actor to pull off this role is tantamount to expecting that actor to defy gravity. It simply cannot be done. I found that the effect was not unlike watching a middle-school dramatics society try to pull off Glengarry Glen Ross. Even though the lines are delivered well and the costumes are suitable and the stage business is well-done and the faces scrunch up into the right shapes at the right times, I just could not bring myself to suspend my disbelief and accept that I was looking at a 70-year-old, let alone one with a life as hardscrabble and storied as Therese’s. And, to be absolutely clear, this is not a failing on McNicol’s part: she is a talented actress who shows off some very strong chops. But she can’t defy gravity. None of us can.
And without Therese Marie, there’s just no play here. As an audience member, I couldn’t believe her, and–by extension–I couldn’t believe any of the other characters when they were talking to or about her. Some of these characters are still interesting on their own merits, but most of the show revolves around the Little Flower; strip her away and you’re left with broad archetypes. Danny is damaged; Justine is screechy; Espinosa is sassy; and everyone speaks in interminable monologues that go nowhere and explain nothing. Just once it would have been nice for someone to say “I’m leaving!” and slam the door, rather than say “I’m leaving!” and follow it up with a five-minute pathos-laden speech.
Buried beneath this production, there is an interesting and remarkable piece of work. But trying to pull this one off without a solid Little Flower is like trying to raise a circus tent without any poles. It’s big, and it’s thick, and it’s colourful, but it doesn’t get off the ground.
- The Little Flower of East Orange plays through May 25th 2013 at Unit 102. (376 Dufferin, at Queen.)
- Remaining performances are on the 18th, 21st and 23rd at 8 PM, and the 19th and 25th at 2 PM.
- Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the door. Reservations are accepted by email and telephone, see website for details.