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Three Generations of Irish Women Live, Laugh, and Love in Little Gem

Elaine Murphy's 2008 play returns to New York City in a new Irish Repertory Theatre production.

Marsha Mason, Lauren O'Leary, and Brenda Meaney star in Little Gem at Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

When Little Gem was first produced in Ireland in 2008, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, which severely restricted women's abortion rights, was still in effect. Ten years later, though, the amendment was repealed, and combined with the country's recent legalization of gay marriage, the political landscape of Ireland is quite different now than it was back when Elaine Murphy's multicharacter monologue play caused a stir (winning a couple of top honors at the Dublin Fringe Festival that year). That doesn't mean that the play is any less relevant now, especially here in the US, where, among other things, abortion rights are under serious threat. Now is as good a time as any to introduce or reacquaint oneself with Little Gem, currently making its second appearance in New York City (after a run at the Flea in 2010) in a solid new production at Irish Repertory Theatre.

Lauren O'Leary plays Amber in Irish Rep's new production of Little Gem.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Based on her own experiences at a women's health clinic in Dublin, Murphy's play features three generations of women in one family: Amber (Lauren O'Leary), the youngest; the middle-aged Lorraine (Brenda Meaney); and the elderly Kay (Marsha Mason). The character drama isn't exactly earth-shattering in its originality. The hard-drinking and cocaine-abusing Amber unexpectedly gets pregnant and decides to go ahead and have the baby. The anxiety-ridden Lorraine, still dealing with the emotional fallout of separating from her junkie ex-husband years ago, takes tentative steps toward trying to move on with her life, especially after a breakdown at her job. And Kay is forced to contemplate the possibility of life without her husband, Gem, as he takes care of him in the aftermath of a debilitating stroke. But to these quotidian struggles, Murphy brings a wealth of insight and humor, eschewing sentimentality in favor of a refreshing forthrightness.

Of the three character arcs Murphy presents, Kay's is the most affecting. Though her sexual frustration as a result of her husband's ill health leads to a comic highpoint when she tries using a vibrator for the first time, it's the existential dread she develops as she wonders how she will go on after her husband passes that lingers most in the memory. That's not to shortchange the other two characters: Amber's melancholy at how quickly she finds herself forced to handle adult responsibilities strikes some touching notes, and Lorraine's confrontation of reawakened romantic desires as a relationship with a guy she meets at a salsa dance class slowly develops is similarly poignant. Murphy's interweaving of these three perspectives throughout Little Gem creates its own thematic resonances, with the juxtaposition of viewpoints exposing generational contrasts in philosophies of life and romance.

Brenda Meaney plays Lorraine in Elaine Murphy's Little Gem.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Though Murphy's ear for colloquial dialogue is consistently sharp throughout, it's ultimately up to the central trio of actors to fashion compelling three-dimensional characterizations out of her lines. Thankfully, O'Leary, Meaney, and Mason are up to the task. Mason so keenly conveys Kay's outward lack of sentimentality and inward contemplativeness that one can easily overlook her noticeably shaky Irish accent. No such difficulty exists with O'Leary, bursting with youthful extroversion that occasionally shades into mature regret; and Meaney, who finds strikingly subtle ways to communicate Lorraine's emotional fragility.

Director Marc Atkinson Borrull has furnished his actors with a fairly barebones production that keeps one's focus almost entirely on the characters and their words. Scenic designer Meredith Ries houses the trio in a single set of a women's health clinic waiting room; instead of scene changes, Michael O'Connor's lighting and Ryan Rumery's sound design suggest the different settings the characters describe in their monologues — not that Little Gem needs any extra technical frills to gussy up its mundane human dramas when they're rendered as delicately, empathetically, and perceptively as they are here.

Marsha Mason plays Kay in Little Gem, running through September 1 at Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)