Irish playwright Elaine Murphy's award-winning play 'Little Gem' has come to the main stage of The Irish Rep for what is certain to be an award-winning run
Little Gem at The Irish Rep is exactly what the title implies, a well-crafted story about three Dublin women caught up in circumstances that may remind you of your own.
A three-woman show (the characters are a Dublin mother, grandmother, and granddaughter) the play begins with the youngest, Amber (played by Lauren O'Leary) showing us she's a spirited but out of control young woman who isn't quite ready for romance or the real world.
The real world isn't prepared to wait though. On a mad night out in Dublin that leads to confrontations, drinks, and drug use - then hooking up with the worst possible choice - she's a one-woman disaster looking for a place to happen.
O'Leary knows the Northside Dublin accent and attitude and owns her character from the moment she appears. A lively teenager with a wild streak, she talks tough but has a softer side that she dares not show to anyone, often even to herself it seems.
Moments after we meet her for the first time we meet her mother Lorraine (played by Brenda Meaney, best know for RTÉ crime drama "Love/Hate"). Lorraine, in North Dublin parlance, is a bit of a melter. An associate in a big department store who gets a little too invested in the irritating antics of dodgy customers, she's the kind of woman who seems always to be fighting to resist the urge to explode.
Lorraine is also our first tip-off that 'Little Gem' is going to take us to places that so many male Irish playwrights studiously omit: places of female distress and heartbreak, but often experienced on its own terms, without immediate reference to a man.
After her shop floor confrontation with a mouthy customer, Lorraine is brought in to the back office to meet the Human Resources manager, and before you can say 'I was only doing my job 'she's having an uncontrollable emotional meltdown. Lorraine obviously needs help.
Soon we learn that she's Amber's mother and that her ex-husband became a drug addict and abandoned both of them years earlier, after stealing everything of value in their house to pay for his latest fix, that is. If she's feeling a little raw, we can quickly understand why.
Meaney is a revelation in the role, quietly crafting a character who is so believably wounded and beguiling you'll root for her from the moment you learn about her struggles.
Then on to the stage comes grandmother Kay (played by note-perfect four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason). From her opening sentence, she enslaves the audience and becomes the heart and soul of this delightful production.
Kay is looking after her stroke-felled husband and when she remembers, herself. Happily married for decades she is floundering now that her role has changed from wife to caregiver. “On the wrong side of 60, but not dead,” she says, Mason brings her to life in a masterclass of acting that hits every note.
“The play is 10 years old now,” playwright Murphy tells IrishCentral. “When I started working in the theater (she began as an actor) I remember going to a lot of plays and I enjoyed them and everything, but I didn't really recognize the people who were around me on the stage. Do you know what I mean? I never saw that representation of my community. And I always think especially with the working class that they're always just these heartbreaking, awful stories.”
Working in a women's health center in Dublin, Murphy was meeting women all day long who'd come in and tell her their personal stories. Where were those kinds of stories on the Irish national stage she asked herself? 'Little Gem' was her answer.
“I knew by reading scripts and acting that the lads got all the great roles,” she says. “So I started writing it and I initially wrote the youngest character Amber for myself. By the time I wrote it though I was too old for the youngest part and too young for the middle part and I definitely wasn't ready for the grandmother yet.”
But by accident, she had also found what she says she was meant to do in the theater. She would be a writer. “It just kind of worked out for me and from then on I was just really happy to do that. I enjoy it more than I do acting and I still do a little bit of acting.”
The current Irish Rep production, which I predict will be award-winning, came completely out of the blue she says. “I just got a phone call one day saying The Irish Rep is interested in this and would you be happy for them to do it? I replied yes, yes, yes!”
If 'Little Gem' is about anything it's about the fate of love. That's a refreshing take in an era of mostly male cynicism so does Murphy feel like women's voices are finally starting to get the forum they deserve in Ireland now?
“I was at a question and answer session at the Abbey after the next play I did opened there and I was told I was the second woman playwright to open on the main stage after all this time. And they were saying to me, do you feel alone? I said, no, because I was on a big writing course last week and there was ten women on it and just one guy. They're not here yet, but they're coming!”