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Theatre in Review: Little Gem (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Brenda Meaney. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The gift of gab reigns supreme in this beguiling triptych of contemporary Irish womanhood dealing with the sheer bloody business of living. In a series of intertwined monologues, Kay, Lorraine, and Amber -- residents of Dublin and each representing a different generation of a single family -- tell us their troubles, using frank, funny language that leaves nothing and no one unscathed. After ninety minutes of Elaine Murphy's pixilated family portrait, you're likely to feel like you've made a new set of friends.

First up is Amber, who is cycling out of adolescence and showing definite hellion tendencies. Dressed for "the debs," the local version of a high school prom, she looks coldly on her neighbors, assembled and ready to witness her departure, saying, "I thought we were never going to get out of here with the amount of bleedin' paparazzi." She attends the dance with her boyfriend, Paul -- "he's wearing this massive suit, with diamond studs in his ears," she says, appreciatively, but the event itself is an intricate, intrigue-filled evening loaded with drinking, flirtations, and confrontations -- as Amber's friend Jo wisely notes, "You can't hammer every bird Paul talks to" -- ending in an alcohol blur. For all Amber knows, this is her future -- sex and dancing and catfights spiked with vodka and Diet Coke -- even if Paul is already showing worrying signs of inattention. When, a little while later, she discovers that she is pregnant, he makes clear exactly how uncommitted he is.

Lorraine, Amber's single mother -- her husband is long gone -- works as a clerk in a store. Unlike Amber, who takes life as it comes -- albeit with a massive chip on her shoulder -- Lorraine is wrapped way too tightly; this is seen in the way she stalks "the wrecker," a customer who, daily, sifts through the merchandise, reducing Lorraine's careful arrangements to chaos. After a dust-up with the lady in question, a meeting with the HR department lays bare other signs of OCD, not least Lorraine's penchant for running home at lunchtime to make sure the door to her house is locked. A friend, trying to get her to unwind, takes her to salsa night at a local nightclub, where she tangles with Niall, her designated dance partner; looking him over, she notes, "I swear, I have never seen so much body hair on one person and he's wringing with sweat...All I want to do is spray him down with Febreze." But it has been a long time without a man, and, going home with him, she suddenly finds herself on fire with passion -- until their encounter ends in utter humiliation.

Lorraine isn't the only member of the family in need of sexual satisfaction. Kay, her mother, enters and announces, in a tone usually reserved for the confessional, "I have an itch down there!" Kay is happily married to Gem, who, sadly, has been made frail by a stroke. Kay, whose anguished blend of desire and shame -- combined with a can-do attitude -- is distinctly Irish, entertains hopes for his full recovery, against the evidence. Meanwhile, a friend convinces her that -- as a short-term solution -- it is time to shop for a vibrator. At the store, a clerk helpfully introduces her to something called the "Rampant Rabbit," a piece of complex engineering that is fearsome to behold. Told that there is a deluxe version, Kay replies, impulsively, that it "must do the hoovering." She settles for a modest example -- named the Kermit, after its green hue -- adding that she is to "come back and upgrade when I'm ready."

Rich with incident and constructed more like a novel than a play, Little Gem follows all three ladies through a season of tumultuous change. Amber must come to terms with single motherhood even as Lorraine faces the shocking possibility of romance with her hairy lothario and Kay bustles about, trying to help them both while resisting the imperative to put Gem in a home. Whatever is going on with them, all three speak with gilded tongues, thanks to Murphy's knack for turning Dublin street language into a kind of eccentric wisecracking poetry. Kay, summing up her marriage, insists, meaningfully, "We've always been very compatible in that department, which is a miracle in itself, because by the time you get to our age, you'd normally be lacing the cocoa with arsenic, not Viagra." Confronted with an unwanted dance partner at the nightclub, Lorraine says, she knows "this should be my 'Nobody puts Baby in a corner moment,' but I wish he would fuck off." Gazing at the trampy attendees at a stag party - one of them wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "Tantric Trisha" -- Amber notes, "Had they been lollipops, they would've licked themselves stupid." Whatever happens to these three -- illness, breakups, death, unexpected romance -- they are never at a loss for words.

Murphy confidently guides Amber, Lorraine, and Kay through a series of misadventures and moments of revelation, all of which put plenty of stress on their family unit, if only to prove how tensile and adaptable it is. Under the sensitive, highly alert direction of Marc Atkinson Borrull, three fine actresses keep one under the spell of their unbridled candor. Lauren O'Leary, talking a blue streak and hard as a cobblestoned street as Amber, teases out her character's hidden insecurities as she contends, simultaneously, with motherhood, a faithless lover, and a severely ailing father; without making it obvious, she visibly matures from one scene to the next, acquiring a real radiance along the way. Brenda Meaney, seen to such good effect as a femme fatale in The Mountains Look Different earlier this summer, is equally effective as the sharp-tongued, seen-it-all Lorraine -- her wildly wavy hair sticking out like overgrowths of furze and her gimlet eyes cocked at an unsatisfactory world; she also finds a buried vein of tenderness in her character, whether reaching out, tentatively, to Amber, or discovering, to her shock, that she enjoys being treated well by a suitor. Marsha Mason could work on her Irish accent, but she neatly lassos Kay's contradictory heart -- especially the often-hilarious contrast between her diffident nature and the bluntly honest things she says: She has a regretful look in her eyes, as if she's very sorry about what she has to tell us, but it is only God's honest truth, and there's nothing to be done for it. And when, at last, her hopes for Gem are brutally dashed, her fury at suddenly finding herself alone in the world carries the gut punch of authentic grief.

The ladies hold forth on Meredith Ries' beautifully detailed, if slightly eccentric, set, depicting the waiting room of a doctor's office; I suppose it alludes to Amber's pregnancy, Lorraine's therapy sessions, and Kay's ongoing struggle with Gem's health, but it is an unusual choice, to say the least. In any case, it is lit with infinite sensitivity by Michael O'Connor. Christopher Metzger has dressed the ladies with acuity. Ryan Rumery's solid sound design includes various forms of music, including salsa and EDM selections.

Murphy ultimately brings all three ladies together for a funeral that provides plenty of drama, along with clues to their future. But don't count them out: Near the end, we find them curled up in bed, grabbing a moment of grace before the next round of tribulations. Whatever happens, the playwright makes thoroughly clear, they are there for each other, and, if nothing else, each is winning the battle for a sense of worth. I can't speak for anyone else, but when Little Gem was over, I was sorry to see them go. --David Barbour

(2 August 2019)

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