Since 2004, Inis Nua Theatre Company has been entertaining Philadelphia audiences with provocative new Irish and British plays, staged at venues around the city. The company has already marked a solid place on the city’s cultural landscape: last season’s Dublin By Lamplight was one of the years most acclaimed productions, and went on to impress New York theatergoers in an off-Broadway run. This season, the company stakes a physical claim on the Philly theater map. Its staging of LITTLE GEM marks Inis Nua’s debut at First Baptist Church, its new permanent home.
It’s an auspicious beginning. Set in modern-day Dublin, LITTLE GEM is a rich and funny exploration of love, loss, and desire among three generations of women. Through a rotating series of monologues, three talented actors create a tangible world, with a presence that firmly inhabits the simple homely set, well laid out in this comfortable new theater space.
Author Elaine Murphy built her characters from people she met working at a women’s health organization, and though vividly written and passionately portrayed, in some ways they seem more stock vehicles than unique individuals. Nineteen-year-old daughter Amber (San Van Auken) enjoys her nights out in the Temple Bar area of Dublin, her alcohol, and her occasional line of coke. To her boyfriend she’s just a casual fling, and when she finds out she’s pregnant with his child he flies off to Australia.
Mother Lorraine (Corinna Burns) is coping with the aftermath of her marriage to the worst ex imaginable and the deteriorating health of her father with obsessive-compulsive cleaning. Anxious and depressed, she is forced to see a “head doctor.” As part of her therapy, she goes to a salsa class, where she meets Niall, who brings much-needed uplift to her life.
Though the broad arc of each character could be lifted from a Lifetime movie and some plot notes are telegraphed too predictably, the intimacy, humor, and emotional clarity of the writing makes for a believable and powerful narrative. The confessional monologues in earthy demotic Irish are reminiscent of early Connor McPherson work, and Murphy captures the humanity of her characters almost as eloquently as her compatriot.
LITTLE GEM mines life’s constants: birth, dying, new love — for unconventional treasures. As grandmother Kay (Maureen Torsney-Weir) cares for her husband in the wake of a stroke she finds the thing she misses most is an active sex life. (Torsney-Weir writhes and itches in artful frustration.) It’s a quotidian concern, but one seldom seen expressed onstage by a post-menopausal woman.
The cast thrives under the textured direction of Kathryn MacMillan, and Maggie Baker’s costumes make an important contribution to building the personalities. All three actors deserve individual praise. I’ve seen Torsney-Weir excel in Arden and Philadelphia Theatre Company shows, and she brings an emotional strength and noticeable joy to this role. Burns has a convincing depth and makes the OCD trope realistic. Van Auken holds her own with sass and verve; after recent showcases with Inis Nua, InterAct, and Simpatico she may be set to be Philly theater’s next it-girl.
Each of their characters is going through the struggles of their own generation, but though they never interact onstage, the women move toward each other emotionally. In the end, their resilience leaves us hopeful about more than just the lives of three fictional Dublin ladies.
by Elaine Murphy
Directed by Kathryn MacMillan
Through February 26, 2012
Inis Nua Theatre Company at the First Baptist Church
1636 Sansom Street