Friday, August 9, 2019

51. (2019-2020): Review: LITTLE GEM (August 8, 2019)

You've read the reviews. Now read the book. THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE, 2012-2013 A Brief Memoir and Reviews

“Three Strong Women”

Let me begin this report on Little Gem, Elaine Murphy’s 2008 rumination on modern Irish motherhood, at the Irish Repertory Theatre, by setting the picture for you. Other than the dialogue placing most of the action in Dublin (a few moments take place in Paris), the play’s locale is undefined. Since women’s issues tie the narrative together, director Marc Atkinson Borrull and designer Meredith Ries have set it in the minimalist environs of a women’s health clinic waiting room, with its standard chairs and medical posters. Wonderfully, Michael O’Connor’s sensitive lighting makes this sterile space emotionally evocative. (Murphy, be it noted, wrote the play while working in a women’s health clinic.)
Brenda Meaney. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Little Gem isn’t a conventional play. Except for several glancing exchanges toward the end, it’s written in the form of monologues for three women: a grandmother, Kay Neville (Marsha Mason); her 40ish daughter, Lorraine (Brenda Meaney); and her 19-year-old granddaughter, Amber (Lauren O’Leary), Lorraine’s daughter.

Divided into six scenes, in each of which the three women, in turn, deliver their lines directly to the audience, it covers what seems to be something more than a year in this family’s lives. As each speaks, the others sit or stand nearby, listening. Occasionally, they may even be directly addressed. The effect suggests they’re sharing a joint memory, each from her own viewpoint.

What those memories reveal isn’t particularly unique as far as dramatic material goes. Making it special is the richly imagined language in which the material is couched, filled with colorful imagery and slang, much of it profane (lots of “shites” and “fucks”), sexually candid, and emotionally vibrant. 

Judging by their language, attitudes, and appearances, Kay, Lorraine, and Amber seem to reside on the border of working and middle-class. Apart from their thick brogues, and their fondness for alcoholic beverages and their various local references, there’s little about them that makes them different from any loving family you might know on this side of the pond. They’ve got problems, but who doesn’t?
Lauren O'Leary. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Amber is a somewhat aimless girl, out for a good time, fond of her sambucas, lines, and spliffs, who gets knocked up by the feckless Paul. Her pregnancy, complicated by Paul’s abandonment of his responsibilities, and ultimate motherhood, is one of the three main threads.
Marsha Mason. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lorraine, a department store salesperson, is divorced from Ray, a junky who stole from her but for whom she still carries a modicum of feeling. Insecure, and seeing a shrink she calls “the lady,” she relies on meds like Xanax to control her moods. She’s romantically blocked but eventually finds affection in the arms of Niall, whom she met at a salsa class, and whose hirsuteness offers a running joke.
Marsha Mason. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Kay, the matriarch, not only is concerned about the problems of her daughter and granddaughter but must care for Gem, the stroke-addled husband she adores and to whose wellbeing she’s devoted. Hungry for sex, she suffers from a gynecological “itch” and is advised to purchase a sex aid, which she calls Kermit (it’s green). By the play’s end she’s both a great-grandmother (to Little Gem) and a widow. And Kermit, Kay’s “alien willy,” even gets to do his hilarious thing “down there” as Kay’s thoughts keep intruding: “I did take the chops out of the freezer that time, didn’t I?”
Marsha Mason. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Murphy captures the inner thoughts of her characters with laser-like detail, expressing in words not only their feelings, but the precise particulars of everything around them. Even the minutiae of their movements are carefully limned. Flamboyant vernacular flows like Guinness, as when Lorraine declares of her visit to the therapist: “This morning, was horsing the mints out of it all the way up Baggot Street but don’t think it made any difference; the bang of drink of me was still brutal when I went to see her.” Verbal nuggets are scattered throughout, like Amber’s disdainful comment when her mom overdresses for a date with Niall: “You look like Whitney dressed as Britney.”
Marsha Mason, Lauren O'Reilly, Brenda Meaney. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Each actress offers a reality-based, theatrically heightened performance perfectly suited to the play’s dramatic needs. O’Leary, from Ireland, has the brash arrogance of the rebellious Amber;  the striking Meaney, also from the Emerald Island, so vivid just recently in the Mint’s The Mountains Look Different, is even better here; and, most affectingly, Marsha Mason, four-time Oscar nominee, is back on a New York stage (she recently was associate director of the Broadway revival of All My Sons). Mason gives her dramatic and comedic all. Her accent may not be as perfect as her costars but she’s filled with so much vivacity and charm it matters not a whit.
Marsha Mason, Lauren O'Reilly, Brenda Meaney. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Director Borrull—who, by the way, does a fine job in mining the play’s nuances—points in his notes to the play’s cultural and political ramifications regarding its feminist positions and how far Ireland has come in the decade since the play was first written and produced. In particular, he refers to the greater freedom—following the repeal of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment—a girl like Amber would enjoy today regarding her reproductive health. While this, of course, is true, Little Gem is just as effective on a purely human basis for its depiction of commonly experienced familial concerns.
Brenda Meaney. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Where Little Gem (which played at New York’s Flea Theatre in 2010) shines less brightly, however, is as drama. The absence of true interaction and dialogue among its three characters, over an hour and 40 minutes, creates a lack of tension, with a consequent dissipation of dramatic interest. The occasional emotional or comic eruptions are well enough in and of themselves but monologues—even divided among three interesting characters, each played by an outstanding actress—are simply not as theatrically compelling as a solid plot in which the action is acted out, not reported.

This isn’t to deny that many contemplating a visit to Little Gem will benefit from considering Lorraine’s advice to Kay: “Do one thing nice for yourself this week.”

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through September 8