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Theatre in Review: Little Gem: A Performance on Screen (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Marsha Mason. Photo: Irish Rep.

For its latest online offering, the Irish Rep's Elaine Murphy's detailed portrait of one Irish family's matrilineal line glimpsed in extremis. If the three main characters aren't women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it's not without good reason. But, as revealed by Murphy's neatly cocked ear for her characters' delightfully defiant tongues, they are immensely strong in the face of adversity -- sometimes more even than they know.

The ladies include Amber, who, at 19, sees her hard-partying life slipping away, thanks to a surprise pregnancy. The young father is worse than useless, and, in any case, he is Australia-bound. Quite apart from the mortifying fact that she is repeating her mother's history, Amber is forced to grit her teeth and admit the truth to her loved ones. Lorraine, Amber's mother, is unraveling, being so bottled up with anger and unfulfilled desire that she excoriates unlucky customers at the convenience shop where she works. (She also cleans the house when in a fury, which guarantees that her digs are sparkling at all times.) Taking the advice of a therapist to give herself a bit of fun, she takes a flyer on a salsa dance class, where, for the first time in years, she meets a man who is truly interested in her. (Well, after an abortive first sexual encounter that both are eager to live down.) Kay, the matriarch, has been happily married for decades but her husband has been weakened by a stroke and is fading fast. Determined to keep going, she shoulders the burden of his care, worrying the others that she is pushing herself too far.

At first, these troubles do little to unite them. But, as Amber takes to motherhood, Lorraine learns to open up to the possibility of love, and Kay draws strength from them both, the members of this fractured family discover that the ties that bind them, however apparently frayed, are stronger and more tensile than previously imagined. When tragedy strikes, they rally around each other valiantly.

Constructed as a series of interlocking monologues, the script makes music from the confluence of its voices, each offering a tart-tongued-but-loving, slant on the crisis du jour. Under the direction of Marc Atkinson Borrull, the piece adapts seamlessly to the video format. (The script's confiding tone, defined by a cutting candor, is reminiscent of Talking Heads, Alan Bennett's magisterial collection of solo pieces for television.) And the cast, repeating their performances from the Irish Rep's summer 2019 staging, couldn't be bettered. The stunned look in Lauren O'Leary's eyes when confronting impending motherhood is surprisingly touching, but there's considerable wit in the fluttering look of dismissal she reserves for her mother's latest round of complaints. She also makes something deeply affecting out the episode in which Amber, awkwardly encountering her ex's parents, introduces their new grandson. Brenda Meaney's Lorraine is scalding one moment, deeply introspective the next, and suddenly, unexpectedly warmed by the possibility of romance. She is at her best in a pair of unexpected confrontations with her ex (Amber's father), who has slid horribly, reducing him to living on the streets. Marsha Mason has a holiday with the juicy role of Kay, whether recounting a shame-faced shopping trip -- the object in question is a vibrator -- or owning up to her ardent, if autumnal, sexual needs. Her running commentary on her daughter and granddaughter is a steady source of delight. All three make for excellent company and you'll be rooting for them to find a way for their troubles.

The Irish Rep has all but perfected the art of presenting plays online. Each actress' performance takes place in another part of the world, but scenic designer Meredith Ries has seen to it that they seemingly inhabit the same house. Christopher Metzger's costumes feel thoroughly authentic. Michael O'Connor's lighting and Ryan Rumery's sound are both impeccable.

Little Gem is also part of a welcome development at the Irish Rep, which has, over the last several years transformed itself from a storehouse of the classics to a curator of contemporary Irish playwriting. The country is, for my money, currently producing some of the liveliest writing for the stage; Little Gem confirms this proposition. The production runs through May 9. It would make a fine early Mother's Day present. -- David Barbour

You can access Little Gem at irishrep.org/

(30 April 2021)

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