Everybody loves Therese Marie, the sweet little old lady who is “The Little Flower of East Orange.” So how come her kids are so screwed up?

Therese Marie, a vibrantly kvetchy Melanie Jones, is the narcissistic center of her own world in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ eponymous play now having its West Coast premiere at the Elephant Theatre in Hollywood. Crippled since childhood from beatings by a father she still idolizes, Therese Marie beats up and cripples her own son and daughter emotionally by periodically attempting suicide. This brings them running to her bedside, full of anxiety and frustration.

As The Little Flower opens, Therese Marie, or “Terry,” as she is called, is in the hospital, flat-lining. We are introduced to her daughter Justina (Marisa O’Brien) as she makes a frantic phone call (sob sob, wail wail, shriek shriek, she cries) to her brother Danny (Michael Friedman), a sometime-writer just out of rehab (again). Justina has flown in from Chicago; Danny is in Scottsdale, Ariz., trying to hitch a ride back to New York. He is bringing with him his current girlfriend, Nadine (Kate Huffman).

Saved from death by a rather indifferent doctor (Mark Adair-Rios), a wonderfully efficient nurse (Leshay Tomlinson Boyce), and a wisecracking nurse’s aide (Alex Furth), Terry revels in this flurry of attention. She is cordial and affable, except when those around her ask questions she doesn’t want to answer. Then she is suddenly “in great pain.”

A number of characters, both real and hallucinatory, flutter in and out of her hospital room. Principal among them is her father (played by Timothy McNeil) who is both deaf and dead. There are also visits by Pope John XXIII, Jimmy Stewart, and Bobby Kennedy. Although these characters are largely irrelevant, they offer some insights into Terry’s thinking, (Why didn’t she vote for Jack Kennedy in 1960?)

While Terry insists that “people should be strong enough to be what they want to be,” her son Danny feels that he is “undeserving of grace” and rails against “wounded martyrs and selfless saints.” His relationship with his mother is both loving and toxic, and many times, as this play progresses, you want to take this sweet, funny, self-involved “little flower“ and “wounded martyr” and clobber her. I guess that indicates that Melanie Jones has done a superb job as Terry. As has Michael Friedman as Danny.

As for the rest of the cast, director David Fofi has steered most of them handily through this entertaining overly-long mishmash of a play, with the exception of Marisa O’Brien, whose Justina is undeveloped, inscrutable, unintelligible, and unremittingly angry.

“The Little Flower of East Orange” is a MIGHT SEE, not a MUST SEE. It will continue at the Elephant Theatre, 1076 North Lillian Way, in Hollywood, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. through Dec. 19. For tickets, call (877) 369-9112.

Cynthia Citron can be reached at ccitron@socal.rr.com.

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