By: Isa Goldberg
August 8, 2019: It may be changing, but there aren’t a lot of roles for women actors of a certain age. At least, not interesting ones. Watching Marsha Mason in her portrayal of a 62-year-old wife and mother in Little Gem, however, is a wakeup call. Elaine Murphy’s three-person play makes its American premiere at The Irish Repertory Theatre.
Like Lynn Nottage, who interviewed women in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo to gather background for her Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined, Murphy drew on stories she heard from women she worked with in a women’s health clinic in Dublin. As explained in the program notes, elevating those accounts to theatrical representation was a consciously political act.
Written as a series of monologues, the characters’ individual stories eventually intertwine, and we realize that the women represent three generations of one family. While it’s easy to see how such a construct could be deadly on stage, Murphy, and her gifted cast, are such deft story tellers that it’s transfixing to watch. Together they weave a tapestry about women’s work – giving birth, parenting, and the emotions that flood these quotidian acts of life.
The structure of the play, with its interlocking stories brings to mind Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, last performed Off Broadway in 2003. Similarly, Bennett’s play, a series of six monologues is tied together by recurring themes of death, guilt, and loneliness.
When Little Gem premiered in Ireland in 2008, abortion was not legal there, except under specific circumstances. And while that has since changed, the anachronisms surrounding out of wedlock pregnancy makes the story that much more cathartic.
As the youngest, the granddaughter to Mason’s Kay, Amber (Lauren O’Leary) is an outgoing young woman, really an everyday kind of person, who’s mostly interested in boyfriends. O’Leary has the uncanny skill of describing banal events so truthfully that she captures us in her consciousness. She’s also excitable, eager to discover life, and open to opportunity.
Portraying her mother, Lorraine, Brenda Meaney is an understated presence. She sublimates her feelings for the benefit of her daughter and mother, blossoming finally at the end of this 90-minute dramedy.
As her mother, Kay, Marsha Mason makes swift turns from comedy to tragedy. She’s actually brilliant. And it is rewarding to see a movie idol, later in her career, honing her skills so magically in our presence.
Director Marc Atkinson Borrull demonstrates unusual sensitivity in helming this 3-person cast. Most importantly, their collective story, regardless of now simple and humbling it is, never seems trite or sentimental. With minimal design elements there is really nothing up there beyond these three strong women.
Little Gem ****
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street) on the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage through September 1, 2019
Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.
For Tickets Irish Rep’s box office at 212-727-2737 or online at www.irishrep.org.
Running time is 100 minutes without intermission.
Photo: Carol Rosegg