Three excellent actresses bring to life the characters in Elaine Murphy’s unusually constructed play, “Little Gem,” which takes place in Dublin in what appears to be a waiting room. One by one the characters make their appearances and individually speak directly to the audience to tell their stories. We learn that the women are a mother, her daughter and granddaughter. Each confides her problems to us, and only near the end are the three seen together as this three-generation family.
The success of the play, directed by Marc Atkinson Borrull, depends primarily on the level of the performances. The good news is that all three portrayals are superb--Lauren O’Leary as Amber, the youngest, Brenda Meaney as Lorraine, Amber’s mother and Marsha Mason as Kay, Lorraine’s mother and Amber’s grandmother.
Amber spins her youthful story of being in love with Paul, who impregnates her and then takes off, leaving her to have the baby alone. Her character is placed in the context of friendships and experiences characteristic of her generation growing up in Dublin.
Lorraine, is looking for a new man in her life following the collapse of the relationship that fathered Amber. There is joy when she describes her eventual liaison with a lover who woos her and takes her on an exciting trip to Paris. Meaney does a fine job of detailing Lorraine’s inner passions and frustrations.
Marsha Mason’s portrayal of Kay, mother and grandmother, touched me the most. She is caring for her terminally ill husband, Gem, whom we don’t get to see. They have not had sex in a long time, and she hungers for it. Her purchase of a vibrator and trying to learn to use it is hilarious.
But the real payoff in Mason’s performance as Kay is her sadness when Gem dies in her arms, and the terror she feels at losing him and being left alone. Her description of the funeral and trying to face the fact that he is really gone as his coffin is lowered into the ground is shattering. A bright spot for Kay was the birth of the son born to Amber and his being named after his grandfather.
One has to listen intently to catch every bit of the monologues, as talk is rapid, particularly in the case of Amber and Lorraine in their efforts to sound Irish as they deliver the playwright’s dialogue filled with Irish expressions. It took me a while to grasp the rhythm.
The production of “Little Gem” comes across as another feather in the cap of the very vital Irish Repertory Theatre, with its reputation for good performances and staging. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737. Reviewed July 28, 2019.