A Tale of Three Generations of Irish Women: Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem


Amber’s a fun-loving girl with a problem. The 19-year-old Dubliner likes a bit of “craic” and goes out most nights drinking and dancing with mates and boys. Now, though, a hookup has left her carrying the baby of an indifferent lad who’s emigrating to Australia. Amber’s mum, Lorraine, is anxious and depressed: Seven years ago, her junkie ex-husband robbed her blind and broke her heart, and her father recently had a stroke. A “head-doctor” tells her to do nice things for herself, like taking a salsa class. Luckily, Kay—Lorraine’s mother and Amber’s grandnanny—possesses a fortitude molded in less complicated times. A survivor of breast cancer, Kay looks after her impaired husband, lends a sympathetic ear to others, and, in her private moments, meekly investigates what a vibrator can do for a lady of a certain age.

All of this we learn because these three women from three generations sit on a nearly bare stage and tell us their stories in interwoven monologues. Little Gem, written by Elaine Murphy, is partly inspired by the people the dramatist meets in her part-time work at a women’s health organization. Her play—which arrives from Ireland’s Guna Nua Theatre by way of the Dublin and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals—is standard-issue Irish-British “blackout” drama: The lights dip regularly to divide monologues in which characters discuss their lives and feelings directly with us, their unacknowledged and undefined listeners. At first, the tales told by Murphy’s women share certain themes—man troubles, health worries, loneliness and desire—but halfway through, the playwright reveals family ties that bind and, in her vision, ultimately redeem.

The cast gives focused performances compelling us to listen to domestic tales—recounted with an Irish lilt and backdrop—that might otherwise make the stuff of daytime television. Hilda Fay finds a touching gentleness and innocence as the damaged Lorraine. Sarah Greene brings out the sweet vulnerability underlying Amber’s self-absorption. And Anita Reeves exudes the salt-of-the-earth-ness that makes Kay the family’s anchor. (A late breakdown scene comes off as overwrought.)

Because the company labors to visualize events carefully, the family’s emotional struggles acquire some immediacy, despite the all-talk, no-movement format. But the actors’ investment can’t eclipse the script’s prosaic and overly familiar qualities. By design, Murphy’s characters are everyday folk, but she has also written any possible psychological mystery out of their monologues; these self-narrating characters tell us everything, announcing what we might have surmised. “Now I’m raging with myself,” Amber informs us of her Australian lout, “that after everything he’s done, he can still make me feel this way.”

A century ago, Chekhov showed us that putting ordinary lives on stage doesn’t have to mean surrendering to banality; the dramatist has to find artful shapes and rhythms, and must respect eccentricities of personality and inexplicable dimensions of the soul. Little Gem, by contrast, narrates plodding lives without literary interest; Murphy’s tale resolves too tidily, and director Paul Meade stages it with little need for an audience’s live interaction. One speculates: What would really be different if these tales took the form of a short story or talking heads on a screen? We could even be sitting around a very chatty family’s kitchen table—and there, the presence of neighborly listeners might not be taken for granted.

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