Hilda Fay, Sarah Greene, Anita Reeves
Following in the tradition of what seems to be a modern movement in Irish drama toward monologue-based plays (see Brian Friel, Sebastian Barry, and Enda Walsh for recent examples), Elaine Murphy’s first play Little Gem lives up to its name. It’s small in scope, featuring a cast of three women, the beauty of Murphy’s language making up for the lack of tension inherent to her chosen dueling monologue form.
Currently playing in New York after winning the Best of Edinburgh Award at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, the play begins with a monologue from Sarah Greene as Amber, a young woman whose boy troubles begin to extend beyond the bounds of ordinary teenage love. Next we’re introduced to another woman, Lorraine, a disgrunted employee at a department store whose boss begins to think she may need some psychiatric help. Lastly, we meet Anita Reeves as Kay, an older women struggling to wrap her head around her sexuality and the possible curtailment of her long-term marriage to her husband Gem.
Over the course of the evening, monologues from each of the women alternate in that order. The lives of these three ordinary women begin to interweave as their relationships are revealed (they’re closer than we may initially think). Murphy has an exquisite way with words and a command of plotting that allows her to unfurl her story layer by layer, adding on details to sharpen focus as she goes.
As has typically characterized my hestiation toward Irish drama, there’s a certain lack of dramatic action here that occasionally begins to tire an audience. If Murphy’s writing weren’t quite so strong, there would likely be too little actually happening here to warrant a trip to the theatre. But, though her characters come into conflict only indirectly, Murphy has at least done a good job keeping each of the women’s alternating monologues brief so that we’re receiving bits and pieces of the story from each perspective intermittently.
Little Gem also provides its three actresses with plum roles full of meaty acting opportunities, despite the fact that none of the three interacts with any of the others onstage. Hilda Fay’s open-faced Lorraine, full of surprise even in middle age, is thrilling to watch. She’s gawky like a teenager, but past her romantic prime; it’s moving to watch her find new love later in life.
Sarah Greene is similarly excellent, filling the role of Amber with jittery, spunky teenage angst. She’s the kind of gum-chewing teen one expects to rebel, and rebel she does, somewhat accidentally – through a series of poorly-timed mishaps that find her pregnant and unmarried.
As Kay, the sexually frustrated older woman, Anita Reeves finds the feist in a role that could easily fall into the category of grandmotherly. Her embarrasment over buying a dildo called Kermit is particularly memorable, and the tiny device’s recurrence throughout the play is a small comic treat.
Murphy’s play is unlikely to stir up too many waves on the New York theatre scene, but it’s nonetheless a satisfying night of theatre. Despite lacking some dramatic punch, the play is tender, beautifully written, and well-performed enough to recommend to those interested in interesting family stories and modern Irish drama.