Living up to its title, Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, now at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is indeed a small jewel in today’s rhinestone-studded theatrical landscape. As it relates the year in the lives of three generations of 21st-century Irish women, told through alternating monologues, the play makes a gift of presenting us with well-conceived characters (even those we never actually see), realistic-sounding dialogue and relatable situations. Nothing here, admittedly, is remotely groundbreaking, but the work is consistently engaging, occasionally hilarious and sometimes heart wrenching.
In large part, credit is due to director Marc Atkinson Borrull’s savvy casting of its three excellent actresses. While she can’t quite sustain the Irish accent, four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason is wonderful as earthy grandmother Kay, never shy to utter a curse word or reveal her true feelings. (When she admits that she spent part of a family funeral not mourning, but checking out the crowd, you may nod your head in agreement.) As she’s long proved, Mason has wonderful comic timing (just listen to her as she tries to use a vibrator for the first time), but she also has the ability to capture pain so well you want to run onto the stage and hand her a tissue.
Equally fine is Brenda Meaney as Kay’s daughter Lorraine, a middle-aged woman whose life has been completely thrown out of whack by a disastrous marriage and the illness of her beloved father, and who we initially find struggling to find her way in life again. She delivers a beautiful and multi-faceted portrait, one that makes us root for her to succeed in her quest. Both women are also well complemented by New York newcomer Lauren O’Leary, who completely inhabits the role of 19-year-old Amber, full of teenage angst and anger, but who is also, like her mother and grandmother, clearly a good person at heart.
One wishes that the production was a bit more visually appealing – neither Meredith Reis’ all-purpose waiting room set nor Christopher Metzner’s simple costumes give us much to look at – and the 105-minute play comes dangerously close to overstaying its welcome. But there are more than enough sparkling moments provided by Mason, Meaney and O’Leary to warrant a visit.