Little Gem, now playing at the Irish Repertory, is a warm-hearted look at three generations of women in Ireland.
A lot has changed in Ireland in the decade since the play was written. Women’s rights have undergone a fundamental shift with the recent repeal of a key amendment to the constitution that had effectively banned abortion. Little Gem centers on an unplanned pregnancy – but there is no discussion about whether the woman should have the baby or the limited options she has. Instead, grandma Kay, mother Lorraine and daughter Amber deliver extended and vaguely intertwined monologues that while entertaining in their own right seem mostly to travel on parallel tracks as they portray the different experiences of the women.
The stories are an amalgam of conversations Murphy heard while working in a women’s health center in Dublin and here the action takes place in a claustrophobic doctors’ waiting room. The hyper-realistic and dowdy set by Meredith Ries seems to stifle the action – much of which is in reported speech and would benefit from a more expansive environment not to mention a little deft editing.
Individually, each of the women’s performances are compelling and much of the writing is sharp and witty. Kay – the grandma played by the marvelous Marsha Mason is contemplating a life without her ailing husband of 42 years. In perhaps the funniest moment of the play, she explores the joys of what she calls her “Green Alien Willy” a dildo she buys in desperation after her husband becomes too ill for amorous pursuits. Brenda Meaney is her uptight daughter, Lorraine and mother of Amber – a young adult with attitude, played by Lauren O’Leary.
While Marsha Mason’s Irish accent wobbles a little, her generous and intense performance is assured. The other duo might have profited from more direction from Marc Atkinson Borrull on how to vary the tone and pace of their long speeches.
The play might also have conveyed a clearer relationship between the three by occasionally letting them actually speak to each other. Instead, each one tells us what the others said in each of their separate stories even at moments of both high drama and comedy as told by Amber:
“…The next day I said to me Ma: “here, what does necrophilia mean?”
The look on her face was pure horror.
“What weird shit are you getting up to?”
The multi-voice monologue style also means that at any one time two of the actors are required to be listening. While Marsha Mason pulls off constant engagement with the action, the others seem less able to sustain plausible reactions over the duration of the play. And when you are telling the action rather than showing it – things on stage can get a big static. Lorraine seems to be bursting with a desire to dance when she describes at length a salsa class she’s attended but is allowed no more than a timid shimmy to some over tentative background music.
The writing adopts a sort of short-hand that eliminates first person pronouns with the effect that the monologues tend to have a staccato quality. When Lorraine describes a cringe-worthy first date it seems as though we are watching it unfold in fast-forward:
“Chewing on an ice cube when he kisses me. Nearly choke…Swallow the ice. Look at him for a minute, then decide ‘fuck it’ and go back in for a wear.”
Despite this production’s tension between form and function, the play lives up to its title by telling everyday stories of real women that are so often overlooked on the stage. Concentrate on the words and the evening zips by, a fascinating and funny slice of life from Ireland in the early 21st century.