Love, sex, birth, death, family: these are the knotty ties that bind in“Little Gem,” Elaine Murphy’s debut play which premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2008, transferring with much acclaim to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, polished to perfection and now presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre in Chelsea.
Three generations of women come to occupy a doctor’s waiting room in North Inner City Dublin, “not too long ago” (kudos to the spot-on scenic design by Meredith Ries, and lighting by Michael O’Connor). They are: Kay (Marsha Mason), who is also referred to as “Nanny”; Lorraine (Brenda Meaney), her divorced, tightly-wound middle-aged daughter; and Amber (Lauren O’Leary), the teenage wild-child daughter of Lorraine.
Though they inhabit the same space, the three do not address each other. Instead they address the audience in successive monologues. This is in keeping with their respective relationships, because like many families, the three are close but don’t actually talk to each other about personal problems. There is Kay’s husband’s stroke, and how much she misses their sex life. There is Lorraine’s stress, which she buries in cleaning cloths until everything in the house shines and her hands are raw. The exception is Amber, who feels close enough to Nanny to eventually confide big news before telling her mother the big news. Oops.
The device of three characters not referring to each other is nothing new: Connor McPherson employed this to great effect in his play, “Port Authority.” “Little Gem” is trickier, in that the three women are related, so this strategy runs the risk of distancing them from each other. But Murphy has the women acknowledge one another, so that they are aware of each other, which is very smart. Never once did I doubt that these women were kin. Never once did I doubt that they fiercely cared for one another. Which brings me to the extraordinary ensemble: Marsha Mason, Brenda Meany, and Lauren O’Leary are absolutely top-notch fantastic. Mason’s Kay describes her first visit to Ann Summers’ sex shop with shocking hilarity. Meaney’s Lorraine recalls an encounter with her ex-husband, a junkie who has become homeless, unrecognizable as the man she once knew, with great poignancy. O’Leary’s Amber transforms before our eyes from a teen on the edge of disaster to a caring, somewhat responsible adult. All that, combined with Marc Atkinson Borrull’s deft direction, ensures an ebullient, emotive experience in the theatre. Think those two things can’t go together? “Little Gem” will make you think again.