Elaine Murphy’s prizewinning play Little Gem talks of birth, life, sex, death and rebirth. Sounds deadly, does it not? Actually, the poignant stories of three generations of women – daughter Amber, her mother Lorraine and grandmother Kay – not only touch the funny bone but also carry an emotional truth that is the mark of an accomplished writer. There is a light touch to the monologues that speaks of a world viewed with a knowing but quirky humor, carried off with aplomb.
Gifted playwriting calls for a voice to take it into the world, and with actresses Anita Reeves (Kay), Amelia Crowley (Lorraine) and Sarah Greene (Amber), Murphy has three fluent interpreters of her lines. In this production directed by Paul Meade at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, they delivered their stories in broad Irish accents and Dublin slang that were distinctly musical and naturalistic.
Each character speaks in isolation of a heartbreak, and together they overcome their individual sadness. Amber is the epitome of a girl emerging into young womanhood: loud, full of life and ever-so-slightly lost. She opens the play full on, brash and sweetly comical. The author’s ear for dialogue is sharp – Amber mentions boyfriend Paul buying the “dear stuff” at a bar while wearing diamond earrings, for example, showing a writerly eye for detail.
The portrayal of Lorraine, the control-freak mother, delights and concerns as we watch a woman unconsciously struggling to contain intolerable sadness. Her description of herself as a frantic saleswoman trailing a nightmarish customer is a moment of pleasure for the audience, while the ensuing interview with the store’s management suits is a masterly (mistressly?) ellipsis into her involuntary expression of pain.
Lorraine’s account of a salsa class is almost too delectable to be true, but as one who has been cajoled and jollied into taking tango classes, I know whereof Murphy writes. I did not meet a hairy guy named Niall, as Lorraine did, but for males who were in the next room when the gift of looks and stud-like skills were handed out, the character of Niall is infinitely reassuring. Lorraine’s story is one of rebirth, even as she lets go of her ex, the homeless junkie Ray. One day that policeman’s call will come, but she will be prepared. And Lorraine’s description of her magical trip to Paris carries an extra meaning when delivered among those who live here.
Kay, the grandmother, is the exquisite central figure who sees and feels the dramas of her daughter and granddaughter but must live out the drama of her own life. Age will not wither her, for her humor and warmth keep her wonderfully alive, even in the face of death. She also gives a delightful account of a visit to a sex shop.
And then there is the Little Gem of the title. There are two Gems in the play, which tells of one door opening as another closes.
All thanks to the excellent Irish Cultural Centre for bringing Little Gem to Paris. Next up in the center’s Theatre Showcase series is Sean Millar’s Silver Stars (June 3, 4 and 5), a song cycle based on the lives of Irish gay men that was a hit at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.
Centre Culturel Irlandais: 5, rue des Irlandais, 75005 Paris. Métro: Cardinal Lemoine. RER: Luxembourg. Tel.: 01 58 52 10 37. Free admission. Reservations are recommended (01 58 52 10 37 or e-mail). www.centreculturelirlandais.com
Reader Carol Tambor writes: “I saw Little Gem in Edinburgh at the Festival Fringe last August. I felt all that your reviewer, Mr. Tran, did and more. I was inspired to bring the play to New York this past January — for a sold-out run! I’m so happy that the emotional truths of the play are now being seen in Paris. I feel so strongly that Elaine Murphy’s talent (this is her FIRST play) will only grow, to delight audiences around our globe for many years.”
Reader Sophie Marzin writes: “Such a good review made me want to go and see the play. Too bad it’s over. Great article nonetheless. Loved the part about tango and the handing out of stud looks, etc.”