In Little Gem at the Irish Repertory Theatre, three generations of the Neville family - grandmother, mother and daughter - stand on the the cusp of change. In a series of monologues delivered directly to the audience, each shares her unique perspective. They are three sides of one coin, who spin one tale of shared grief and hope.
We meet the youngest Neville first. Amber (Lauren O'Leary) bursts with nervous energy and a line of fast talk that at times leaves one breathless. O'Leary endows Amber with charm, even as she does her best to exasperate her family and send herself into an alcohol induced coma on a regular basis. Dressed in denim jacket and that peculiarly ‘in’ jean shorts over tights, she alternates between that universal teen pose and throwing herself around onstage, piercing the air as she punctuates her efforts with a wild swing here or a pouting, hyper-dramatic walk there.
Amber pauses and her mother Lorraine (Brenda Meaney) picks up the thread. Rather, she starts a thread of her own. As Lorraine, Meaney brings to the stage her uncanny grace and warmth. It's not an effort for her; it just is. Battling anxiety resulting from family stress, including a disastrous marriage an addict who first robbed her blind and then abandoned his family (more of a blessing than a curse), Lorraine is having a tough time keeping it together. The image of Ray, through the prism of Lorraine's anguish, is almost visceral in its clarity. Meaney is just a wonderful actress. Trapped in that netherworld between alone and lonely, Lorraine can't really move on. Her coping mechanism has been to clean her house with maniacal fervor. Her therapist. however, offers a more positive way out.
Enter the family matriarch, Kay (Marsha Mason). Clearly the rock on which her family stands, Kay is spirited and funny. Vibrantly on the “wrong side of 65” she is not ready to give up on life. Sadly, she faces a loneliness of her own. Her husband, her life partner of 42 years and man of her dreams, is slowly succumbing to the after effects of a stroke. Kay has been living on hold for a year now, with all its attendant dread and frustration. Why did this happen? What will she do if her husband, her Gem, dies? Mason is delightful, seamlessly combining humor and wisdom. In a layered, mature performance, she delivers zingers and a powerful emotional denouement with equal depth.
The play starts off a little awkwardly, as O'Leary has to establish the breaking of the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. As the tapestry of monologues weaves itself, the communication with the audience loses much of its self-consciousness. The generic office setting by Meredith Ries, however, confused me. It is very well executed, down to the minutest detail, yet it remains nondescript. You never learn where they are supposed to be. Is it a doctor’s office? Is it the Human Resources office that Lorraine refers to? What are the posters on the back wall? Michael O’Connor's subtle lighting does more to create a sense of space, mentally and emotionally.
Author Elaine Murphy has crafted a compelling piece which balances anxiety with humor. It does begin to drag a little toward the end as we become impatient to get to the point. However, it is excellent theatre, with moving performances and that particular brand of Irish humor that leavens life’s miseries with an appreciation of irony that has kept that sturdy little nation going through thick and thin. You know it will carry the Nevilles through the bad times as well.
(Photo by Carole Rosegg)