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Little Gem

Marsha Mason, Lauren O'Leary & Brenda Meaney           photos by Carol Rosegg


Little Gem


                     By Ron Cohen


Three generations of women in a Dublin family tell their story with humor and heart in Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, being given an admirable production by Irish Repertory Theatre and boasting a splendid performance by Marsha Mason.


As they deal with the not unfamiliar crises of everyday living – illness, failed marriage, pregnancy and finally the death of a beloved father and husband -- their narrative becomes totally involving.



Mason plays Kay, the eldest of the three, long married to James Neville, the love of her life and the “little Gem” of the title, a nickname reflecting the man’s essential goodness. As the play begins, Kay’s life has become one of tending to James, suffering from the severe effects of a stroke.


James’ illness has also deeply affected the peace of mind of their daughter Lorraine, embodied in an appealing turn by Brenda Meaney. She becomes so sharp with a customer in the shop where she clerks that benevolent management has given her time off to seek counseling. Lorraine, who is separated from a dope-addicted husband she hasn’t seen in years, is also burdened with watching over her free-natured 18-year-old daughter Amber.


As Amber, Lauren O’Leary exudes a youthful brashness and her initial disbelief, followed by anger and acceptance when she becomes pregnant by a boyfriend who shows little commitment, is effectively limned. Some audiences, though, may find that O’Leary’s sophisticated blonde looks belie the character’s stated age.


Murphy’s play, which premiered in Ireland some ten years ago, is based on her experiences working in a women’s health clinic in Dublin. It’s a composite of the stories she heard there. And even as she gives the turns of plot dramatic form, the narrative carries a compelling veracity.


So, by the way, does the set by Meredith Ries, fitted out to look like the waiting room of a medical clinic, while Michael O’Connor’s lighting shifts to suggest the play’s other locales.


Murphy also uses a format frequently found in Irish dramaturgy, that of the monologue play. It allows the seductive loquaciousness of Irish storytelling an open platform; it also can, in some scripts, lead to a feeling of stasis and monotony.


But if the idea of a play made up of a series of monologues puts you off, don’t let it here. Marc Atkinson Borrull’s smart staging, which often keeps all three of the actors on stage, lets you see them reacting to one another as the story unfolds. The emotional attachments and love that connect these women are palpable. And they tell about their happenings with such urgency and passion, you feel like they are talking directly to you as some new-found confidant.


And most particularly, there is Mason’s Kay, warm, funny and deep.  The actress, whose career include four Oscar nominations, an Emmy nomination and two Golden Globe Awards, may be giving one of her best performances yet, rich in both spirit and skill, not to mention a charmer of a brogue.


She exudes a heroic defiance mixed with grand unforced comic knowhow when Kay sees a doctor about a genital itch and winds up telling the doc how she misses sex with her incapacitated husband. “I know it’s not the done thing talking about your sex life” says Kay, “but Jaysus, I’m the wrong side of sixty not dead.”


The laughter climaxes – if not Kay – when Mason seems to invite us all to crowd around the chair she is sitting in and Kay describes in graphic terms her unsuccessful attempt to use a vibrator.


Then, there are the moments of overwhelming emotionality that Mason delivers without one sign of pushing. With James’ death, Kay reflects: “I’ve been Mrs. James Neville twice as long as I was ever Kay Kelly.” The line, as delivered by Mason, is a genuine heart-breaker.


A program note from director Borrull makes an interesting political note about the play. He points out Ireland has changed radically since Little Gem was written, taking on a much more liberal approach to social issues. “The women Murphy met while working at the health clinic could probably not have imagined the Ireland of 2019,” he writes.


Within the constricted parameters that Ireland offered them, however, Murphy’s women come across as strong souls, almost noble, in facing up to the exigencies of life. Her Little Gem gets a lot of help in that direction from Mason’s gem of a performance.


Review posted August 2019

Off-Broadway play

Irish Repertory Theatre

132 West 22nd Street


Playing until September 8