Denial and Dysfunctionby Pat Launer October 31, 2012
By Pat Launer
You’ve probably seen her at DZ Akin’s (her headshot is prominently displayed at the checkout counter — and she’s got another photo on the wall in the main dining area).
Or maybe you’ve watched her onstage, where she’s been performing since she moved to San Diego 53 years ago.
A lady never divulges her age, but Trina Kaplan will happily admit to 64 years of marriage to her high school sweetheart, Ted.
Now, at a time when most folks are kicking back, if not actually rocking on the veranda, the indomitable Kaplan is taking on a huge, emotionally challenging role: the enigmatic, guilt-inducing mother in “The Little Flower of East Orange,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis (Nov. 10-Dec. 8). The show is being produced by ion theatre, which is “fiercely dedicated to forging bold, vital, diverse new work from within its artistic membership.”
Kaplan joined the company at its inception, in 2004.
According to ion’s founding executive artistic director Claudio Raygoza, who’s co-directing the production of “Little Flower” with co-founder/partner Glenn Paris, “The play is a great fit with our theater’s sensibilities. We love the writing, and we’ve been trying to get the rights for three years. Obtaining them presented us with an opportunity to give Trina a role where she would shine. We like to give roles to actors that stretch them out of their comfort zones. The troubled relationship between mother and son at the center of the story is so in contrast to what Trina has with her own family, we knew it would be a great opportunity for her to explore that alternate side to the family dynamic.”
And explore she has.
“She’s a very, very complex character,” Kaplan says of Therese Marie, a Catholic woman in her 70s who’s found unconscious in a wheelchair near the Cloisters, a museum of medieval art in northern Manhattan.
Therese has a horrific past. The child of deaf parents, raised in East Orange, N.J., she was the family’s Great Hope to become a teacher for the deaf. Her brilliant, thwarted, idolized father could be gentle and sweet but would often fly into alcoholic rages and beat his wife and children. When Therese threatened him not to touch her mother and sister again, he proceeded to vent all his wrath on Therese alone.
She lost her youth to a spinal cord injury (related to her father’s alcoholism), which kept her hospitalized for a decade and in pain for most of her life. Now in the hospital again, she’s visited by her neurotic, angry children — and the ghost of her father.
“She’s a product of what has happened to her,” Kaplan explains, “and she wants more for her children. But she ends up practically destroying them. At times, she seems simple; at other times, smart. And then, she can be the Bitch Mother of All Time.”
Therese has two 30-something offspring; she tends to favor her son over her daughter.
“I know just what that’s like,” Kaplan says. “My brother was seven years older, and there was a bond my mother felt toward him that she didn’t seem to have toward me.
“It’s the same with Therese and Danny. Justina, also seven years younger, just never caught up. I used to feel like that. All I heard, all my life, was my mother calling my brother ‘My Herbert.’ It wasn’t ‘til I was an adult, with grown children, that a friend of mine spent time with my mother and reported back to me, ‘When you’re not around, you’re ‘My Trina.’”
A thorny play
When “The Little Flower of East Orange” premiered at the Public Theatre in 2008, The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley considered it part “lyrical memory play,” part “hard-knocks domestic drama” and part “buttery and bittersweet family comedy.”
It’s the most directly autobiographical of Guirgis’ plays, several of which have been presented at San Diego’s smaller theaters (“Jesus Hopped the A Train,” “Our Lady of 121st Street,” “In Arabia We’d All Be Kings” and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”).
The playwright’s mother, like Therese, loved movies. His younger sister is named Marie Therese. Like his character, Danny, he’s struggled with substance abuse, addiction and recovery.
Guirgis was raised on the Upper West Side of New York, the son of an Egyptian father and Irish-American mother who put him in Catholic school at an early age. He still has Catholic guilt and considerable ambivalence about family.
“I wish you didn’t have to curse,’” his mother (now deceased) used to tell him. But he does. Prodigiously, in this play.
In an episode that seems like it comes straight from “Little Flower” (or vice versa), his father “went out by himself,” Guirgis has said, “without telling anybody, because he wanted to go to the bank and cash in, like, $8 in Lotto, and he fell over on 82nd Street, broke his hip, and four months later, he was dead.”
In “Little Flower,” we never do find out why Therese Marie went to the Cloisters that fateful day — not to mention how she got there.
“She was in her nightgown,” Kaplan says. “She wheeled herself from Riverside Drive, which must be four or five miles!
“At times, she’s a little out of her mind. She’s been on morphine most of her life, and at the hospital, she’s sort of in withdrawal; she’s hallucinating.”
Hence, the recurring appearance of her father.
“She reveres his brilliance,” Kaplan says, trying to get a handle on Therese’s life of denial and her odd post-mortem relationship with her destructive dad. “I think if she didn’t find a way to revere him, she couldn’t survive. She talks about him being gentle and supportive — except when he’s drunk.”
Besides creating a backstory and timeline for the character, Kaplan had to learn some sign language for this production. And then there’s the script to memorize.
“The lines are monumental,” she says, admitting to a bit of nervousness and intimidation. But she’s dug in with enthusiasm, as she does with everything she sets her mind to.
“I read the script over and over and over again,” she says, describing her process for learning a role. “This time, I recorded the lines with different people, different voices: my sons, my husband, a friend. I listen to it over and over and fall asleep with it in my head.
“It’s big and kind of crazy. The hallucinations will be easiest,” Kaplan quips, “because I’ll be off my rocker anyway!”
Her directors have told her not to worry; they’ll be onstage with her. Raygoza and Paris are playing several roles in the play. But on the emotional plane, she has little to draw on personally in terms of the mother-son relationship.
“Things keep coming up that are so opposite to my experience,” asserts Kaplan. “My relationship with my sons is nothing like hers. Sometimes, she’s a leech. Sometimes, she can be cruel. Occasionally, she seems to be caring. But she’s relentless. That Danny doesn’t hit her surprises me. She really knows how to push her kids’ buttons.”
Most actors say it’s important, with not-always-likable characters, to learn to love them.
“I admire her for her survival instincts,” says Kaplan, “though sometimes survivors kill other people along the way! But through all her hardship and pain, she never gave up. And she’s obviously very bright. She’s fluent and articulate. I like her interactions with the nurse and orderly. I like her independence. And I love her spirit. I don’t believe everything she says. But I love the fanciful line, ‘I used to rollerskate over rooftops.’ Still, she can really smother her kids.
“I’m not like that at all. I don’t like that about her, but I have to find a way to understand. I guess we Jews don’t own the Jewish Mother guilt/martyr thing!”
Over the years, at theaters ranging from the JCC to the Old Globe, Kaplan has played a bevy of mothers, Jewish and otherwise, kind and cruel, smothering and encouraging.
Now along comes Therese.
“It’s a work-in-progress,” she says of developing this complex character.
There’s a certain symmetry relating to the performer playing her son: highly regarded local actor Jeffrey Jones.
“The first play Jeffrey ever saw,” Kaplan reports, “was ‘Death of a Salesman.’ I played Linda [Willy Loman’s wife]. I think it was 1990. That’s what made him decide to be an actor. So here we are, together on stage. We’ve never worked together before, and I’m thrilled.”
The early years
Kaplan has come a long way from Albany, N.Y., where she was born to a secular German Jewish mother and a father from an Orthodox family from Romania, which settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. On her mother’s side, she was fourth generation American. Her family relocated to Brooklyn when Trina was 10, because her father lost his business. They moved into his mother’s home, joining four of his sisters and their families.
“There were 14 people in one three-story house,” Kaplan recalls. “It was hell.”
Her brother (that would be “My Herbert”) stayed behind to finish high school, so he was separated from the family.
“We’d been very, very close,” she says. “That was very difficult for me. But later, as a flautist, when he traveled with orchestras, he’d come home — we had our own apartment by the time I was 14 — and give me advice on makeup and hairdos.
“One thing he told me was to sleep with adhesive taped from the tip of my nose to the top of my forehead, so I’d get rid of the bulge and give my nose an up-tilt. Needless to say,” she says, showing her profile, “it didn’t work!
“Later, he and his wife and baby moved into my parents’ one-bedroom apartment. He never had a good relationship with my parents after that. He never called them or asked me if he could help in any way. I think I’ve worked out all my family issues, thanks to psychiatry, psychology and my own smarts.”
So maybe she does have a few things to draw on in creating a dysfunctional family relationship.
Things started looking up after she met Ted Kaplan at New Utrecht High School, where comedian Buddy Hackett had a big crush on her. She and Ted married in 1948, after he returned from 20 months in Japan (“the war ended while he was in basic training”). He hadn’t finished college, but he went back, graduated and got “the equivalent of a master’s degree in accounting.” Trina became a bookkeeper, and she’s used those skills to help many theaters in town.
Their children — two sons and a daughter — were born in 1951, 1954 — and 1964 (“I always wanted three”). When Trina was in her teens, she used to perform in variety shows with the “neighborhood kids” from Borough Park, Brooklyn: Buddy Hackett, comic actor Arnold Stang and Harvey Lembeck (who later appeared in the classic war film, “Stalag 17”).
After moving to San Diego in 1959, she got involved with several community theaters, and then found her way to the theater group at the JCC (when it was still located on 54th Street). And the rest… is a chapter of local theater history.
Now, it’s “The Little Flower,” which may just be Kaplan’s swan song… “unless some nice little cameo comes up.” With her husband still playing tennis two to three times a week and umpiring ball games, “neither one of us wants to give up,” as Kaplan delicately puts it. Far from it.
They have two grandchildren and six step-grandchildren. Trina is very active at ion theatre, performing in plays and readings, acting as dramaturge and box office scheduler. For the past 10 years, she has read the L.A. Times for the blind, as part of KPBS’s Radio Reading Service. She remains active politically, marching, picketing and registering voters. But she’s backed off a bit this election season, conserving her voice for Therese.
“I’ve been so lucky,” she says of her diverse theater experiences, that range from the grandmother in ion’s “Grapes of Wrath” to Prospero in Raygoza’s “Tempest.” One of her favorites was the Gertrude Berg role of a Jewish widow in “A Majority of One.” She likes surprising people with her knowledge of Yiddish, in shows like “Beau Jest.”
“This is the 71st show I’ve done,” she marvels. “I’ve gotten to work with some of the best actors and directors in town.”
She may say she’s done, but I wouldn’t take any bets. Besides, her picture’s still up at DZ. She has a waiting public to serve.
“The Little Flower of East Orange” runs Nov. 10-Dec. 8 at ion theatre, 3704 Sixth Ave., on the edge of Hillcrest.
Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 4 p.m.
Tickets ($20-$33) are available at (619) 600-5020; www.iontheatre.com.