Review: Motherhood Masters Dysfunction in ‘Little Gem’

Kay, Lorraine and Amber share a stage but not a single conversation in Elaine Murphy’s “Little Gem.” Yet as the show goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that the women, who represent three generations of a Dublin family, are very close. When one speaks, the others look on, sometimes silently reacting: a raised eyebrow here, pursed lips there. They may not directly speak to each other, but they do look out for each other.

Ms. Murphy’s play, which had its New York premiere in 2010 and is now revived at the Irish Repertory Theater, is structured as a series of interconnected monologues, with the women trading places center stage as they take turns holding forth.

The first one we meet is Amber (Lauren O’Leary), who is in her late teens and prone to hitting the sambuca. And the vodka. And the Coronas. And the cocaine and spliffs. “My hangovers are brutal lately,” Amber tells a colleague after throwing up.

We in the audience suspect something else, and lo and behold, Amber is pregnant by her casual boyfriend, who is more interested in going to Australia than in his new responsibilities.

Something not entirely dissimilar happened to Amber’s mother, Lorraine (Brenda Meaney), at about the same age, except that the father stuck around long enough to reveal himself to be a deadbeat junkie.

The only one with a solid track record in the relationship department is the matriarch, Kay (Marsha Mason in fine form), but unfortunately her beloved longtime husband has been incapacitated by a stroke. Her sadness and anxiety do not obscure more pragmatic needs: “I’m on the wrong side of 60, not dead,” Kay says. “I haven’t had sex in well over a year, and it’s killing me.”

Life goes on. Lorraine overlooks a bad first impression (“all I want to do is spray him down with Febreeze”) then a bad first sexual encounter to pursue a romance with Niall — and he turns out to be a good bloke. Amber gives birth to Little Gem, whose arrival helps assuage what’s happened to his great-grandfather, Gem Sr.

The script does not specify where the play takes place, so the director Marc Atkinson Borrull has placed the trio of narrators in a waiting room — the posters on the walls of Meredith Ries’s set suggest an OB/GYN practice. This may be a reference to the play’s genesis: Ms. Murphy was inspired by some of the women she’d met working at a health organization.

At the same time, the show, a warm slice-of-life tale doesn’t follow suit on potentially ominous developments — an abortion? domestic violence? — the setting might suggest. Perhaps we have become too cynical as audiences.

While we can tell that they’ve had their differences over the years, the women circle the wagons in times of need. This depiction of matrilineal love and support feels bold in an era when dysfunction too often is the cheap fossil fuel of narrative engines — but not enough to entirely sustain our interest all the way through.

This is compounded by the show’s storytelling approach, which deprives it of the energy created by personal interactions. Seeing the women next to each other, it’s hard not to wish they’d actually connect. Relaying a story has its charms; living it is something else entirely.

Little Gem
Through Sept. 1 at Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; 212-727-2737, Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

Little Gem

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