The men aren’t there.
Well, they are, but only talked about, never seen. However important they might be in the shaping and sometimes twisting of the lives we see and hear in Dublin writer Elaine Murphy’s fascinating drama Little Gem, the play is about these three women and the ways they form and keep a family: mom Lorraine (Sara Hennessy), grandmom Kay (Michele M. Mariana), young-adult daughter Amber (Lauren Mitchell).
Shifting points of view easily in a smooth series of monologues, the three women tell a tale of love, loyalty and endurance on the tenuous lower rungs of the working class. It doesn’t hurt that a few good comedy bits are tossed in to ease the tension, from mom’s encounter with the sweating hairy man to grandma’s reluctant adventures with the buzzing vibrator.
Corrib Theatre’s production in the upstairs banquet room of Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub is about as stripped-down as it can be, and that seems fitting for a play about a family of women just struggling (successfully, as it turns out) to survive: a simple low platform for a stage, a wooden chair that can be moved about, a backdrop that consists of a plain wooden frame with a large quilt, that enduring form of women’s art and craft, hanging from it. The quilt defines the warmth of the women’s relationship, and makes the stage a home. The little bar in the next room, where members of the audience can grab a beer or glass of wine before and after the show, makes the space seem both a home and a comfortable pub, an Irish institution that plays a vital background role in Little Gem.
The production’s simplicity puts the attention squarely on the performers, who meet the challenge with dash, humor, and sometimes shattering impact. Hennessy maintains a sweet and carefully modulated rambunctious center as Lorraine, the harried woman in the middle who is dealing with a rocky work environment, a long-absent deadbeat husband, a daughter who might be going off the deep end, and the surprise possibility of a genuinely good relationship with a decent man. As Kay, the veteran Mariana provides the show’s emotional anchor, downshifting the action to the nitty-gritty of it all: the end of a long and fruitful marriage, the recognition of her own mortality, the responsibility for holding everything together, the tending of the emotional embers so they don’t go out, the warmth and strength that bind the three generations together. It’s a lovely and moving performance. Mitchell, by generational contrast, is a compulsively chattering jumble of nerves as Amber: a little punkish, reckless, combative, vulnerable in spite of herself, left in the lurch by the lout who knocks her up and leaves her with child – the “Little Gem” of the title, the family’s new hope.
The surprising thing about Little Gem is, you get a complete sense of the rising and falling relationships even though no one ever talks to anyone else: until the very end the entire play is told in monologues, each of the three actors taking her turn. Director Gemma Whelan keeps the action clear and swift, paying close attention to the emotional ebb and flow. What emerges is a small wonder about ordinary people’s large lives.
Three points about Corrib and Little Gem:
- Corrib is devoted to plays about the Irish experience, and in her program notes Whelan points out playwright Murphy’s key role in that regard: “In the history of Irish theatre, female voices have long been absent or marginalized. This despite the fact that Lady Augusta Gregory was one of the founders of the Irish National Theatre – the Abbey, where her plays were produced alongside Synge and Yeats. Teresa Deevy had her plays staged there in the 1930s, and Marina Carr was one of the first women to have her work produced there in the twenty-first century. Elaine Murphy’s latest play Shush played at the Abbey Theatre in 2013, making her the third woman in nearly 100 years to have a play produced by Ireland’s national theatre. The time has come!”
- Little Gem continues through Feb. 26 on an unusual schedule: Monday through Thursday evenings. Among other things, that allows other theater people to catch the show on their Monday nights off from their own shows.
- Also from the program: “We dedicate this production to Ted Roisum, (1952-2015). Ted performed in Corrib’s first full production – St. Nicholas – at Kells in March 2013, marking the first time this space was used as a theatre. For Corrib, this will always be ‘Ted’s Space.’ We miss him hugely.” A public memorial service for Ted, the much-loved and admired Portland actor who died of cancer on Jan. 29, will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 22, at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 S.W. Morrison St.