“All I want is a break from myself for a few hours,” confides Lorraine, as she resolves to do one nice thing for herself each week, amidst the stress of her father’s deteriorating health, her daughter’s unwed pregnancy, and her own failed marriage to a petty thief and substance abuser, who long before abandoned her and their young child. Through such honest and humorous reflections, Lorraine, her mother Kay, and daughter Amber reveal the heartaches and joys of a cathartic year in the lives of three generations of women from a working-class Dublin family, in Inis Nua’s Philadelphia premiere of LITTLE GEM.
The award-winning work by Irish playwright Elaine Murphy is structured as alternating direct-address monologues by the three intersecting characters (a format familiar to Inis Nua fans from last season’s heart-wrenching PUMPGIRL). It is an intimate dramatic style that offers no distractions or escape from the women and their personal tales, delivered in an open, immediate manner that combines Irish story-telling with psychoanalysis–using the audience as the surrogate “head doctor” (Lorraine’s term for her much-needed therapist).
Though LITTLE GEM is a play by a woman, about three women, and, for Inis Nua’s production, directed by a woman, all of the characters’ thoughts and actions revolve around the unseen men in (and out of) their lives, who serve to paint the bigger picture of love and loss, and the cycle of birth and death experienced by all humankind. That larger universal theme is an ancient one–the “Three Ages of Man”–which dates back to Greek mythology’s “Riddle of the Sphinx” and recurs throughout the history of art and literature.
Both Aristotle and Seneca, like the Sphinx, divided our life cycle into the three phases of youth, maturity, and old age (Shakespeare, in his “All the world’s a stage” monologue from AS YOU LIKE IT, expanded the number to seven). Such renowned Old Master painters as Titian, Hans Baldung Grien, and Gustav Klimt created allegorical depictions of the popular theme, and Baldung went so far as to include a macabre personification of death, holding an hourglass and a scythe, as the omnipresent fourth stage of life.
Such is the cycle portrayed in contemporary terms by Lorraine’s family, as it exists for everyone. As father Gem (or James) dies, his great-grandson Little Gem is born; the generations mature, as each of the three women is forced to transition into the next stage of her life. In the end, is the realization that what they become later was already being formed in their younger days, through their decisions and relationships. And though they can’t truly escape from themselves or their situations, they can be happy and hopeful again, as they find the courage to “get on with it.”
The endearing characters are performed by an engaging cast; the writing is believable, the portrayals are natural, and the Irish accents are well feigned. The audience comes to care about these women–despite their bad choices and human flaws, their obscenity-sprinkled raves and candid discussions of sex–as they balance humor with poignancy, avoid self-pity and mawkish sentimentality, and remain pragmatic amidst life’s challenges, ultimately finding strength and support in each other. All three cast members, under KC MacMillan’s sound direction, are excellent in defining their characters’ personalities and stages of life, in the nuances of their transformations, and in their ability to captivate the audience.
Sarah Van Auken as Amber displays all the reckless energy of youth; she is animated and excitable, but then slowly matures before our eyes as the responsibilities of young motherhood are thrust upon her. Corinna Burns as Lorraine is at first sad, stressed, and lonely, but evolves over the 90-minute production into a self-confident woman with a renewed twinkle in her eye and smile on her face, willing to take a chance and to enjoy life and love again. Maureen Torsney-Weir as Kay is frank and sympathetic, funny and heartbreaking, as she discusses the intimacy she misses with her incapacitated husband, then, in the blink of an eye, faces the rest of her life without him. But the younger generations’ recognition of their elders’ true love and commitment, in naming the new baby Little Gem, provides an uplifting and optimistic ending for this very touching jewel of a production.
Written by Elaine Murphy
Directed by Kathryn MacMillan
February 7-26, 2012
Inis Nua Theatre Company
Off-Broad Street Theatre @ First Baptist Church
1636 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103