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Little Gem— a virtual production that lives up to its title

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Marsha Mason, Lauren O'Leary & Brenda Meaney
Since the pandemic locked down all theaters, the Irish Repertory Theater has reformatted 11 of its past productions for the screen. Playwright Elaine McMahon's Little Gem was still presented live at the Rep's Chelsea main stage durng the summer of 2019, when my friend and colleague Simon Saltzman reviewed it for Curtainup.

Oh, what a difference more than the two years since Simon's review of that live production and my seeing the actors reprising their performances in their New York, London and Connecticut homes can make. What Simon Saltzman had to deal with when he left his New Jersey home to see a press performance of Murphy's triple monologue play at the Rep's Chelsea venue was un omfortsbly hot westher. My dance card was too full to see Little Gem when Simon did, so the Rep's bringing it back as newly filmed for the screen is a welcome opportunity to catch up with it to see whether the screened version lived up to his praises.

I didn't have to leave my living room couch or even put on shoes to find out. Though I missed bumping into fellow thester critics in the lobby and saying "hi" to the Rep's co-founder Charlotte Moore in her usual post at the ticket booth, I'm happy to report that Little Gem does indeed live up to Simon's and other crtics' praises.

Wnat I saw was the same play and cast Simon saw, but my experience was just as rich — possibly even better. You see, the Rep's skillful handling of the designed-for-onscreen viewing format works especially well for this monologue storytelling. While Amber, Lorraine and Kay are never actually together on the virtual stage, the expansion of the wating room setting of the live production to the actors' homes allows the characters to move around and reposition themselves for their solo turns. Despite the theater's being small enough for audiences to appreciate the performances, the close-ups possible in this format brings out the delicacy of what an actor's character is feeling as even a front-row seat could not.

The review of the 2019 production ably covers the details of the narrative and the way the actors embody their characters. Since it confirms my own take, I'll continue by re-posting it below. Before I do, just two personal comments. First, the screened version had me so close to the actors' faces that I had no trouble fathoming every bit of the Irish lingo; second, Kay's final scenes were especially heartwrenching for me. Yet, the sadness I shared with her also brought joy and gratitude that I had a healthy beloved husband with me for many more years than Kay.

Simon Saltzman's Review
I've an itch, down there, Seem to spend most of my life in waiting room and here I am again, after swallowing every tablet, trying every cream and changing my washing powder that many times I've run out of brands. — Kay
Whatever it was in my by-heat-addled head that said I should brave the torrid temperature last Sunday and head for the Irish Repertory didn't steer me wrong. This early play by local writer Elaine Murphy is small in scale — three members of the same Dublin family connected through monologues — but made larger by their prickly prose and their generational connection.

Amber (Lauren O'Leary), a savvy and sassy nineteen year-old is mainly concerned with having a good time with her friends and downing sambucas. There is, however, a persistent pain in her belly that troubles her, and it isn't indigestion. But she has nothing on her mother Lorraine (Brenda Meaney), whose day job triggers a rage in her as well as a pain in her head serious enough to be sent to the company shrink Can she find relief and romance at a salsa class? When it comes to finding relief, her mother Kay (Marsha Mason) looks forward to private time with a little gismo she calls her "alien" when taking a break from caring for husband, a victim of a debillitating stroke.

Far be it for a New York-ear to admit to a few occasions when he didn't fully fathom some of Amber's Irish-ized lingo. But like me you will have to control your laughter as Kay shares her more intimate moments and then hold back your tears as she talk about the one great love of her life. "I'm the wrong side of sixty, not dead,"she says and still aware of that itch "down there."And can sex find its way back into Lorraine's life now that she has locked her alcoholic husband out of the house?

What is really so special about these three endearingly ordinary women? The answer is that playwright Murphy has given them that gift of Gallic gab and unfettered flair for confessing out loud that distills their mostly unremarkable lives and their feelings into something that becomes eminently touching over the course of this one-act play.

We become a party to the major events in their lives over the course of a year and specifically dealing with the temptations and tribulations they endure that also include a birth and a funeral. They engage us even as they define themselves to themselves and to each other. Under Marc Atkinson Borrull's gentle direction, we see them all on the stage together. But each moves to a corner as the other has her say in the functional setting designed by Meredith Ries to suggest a doctor's waiting room.

It is always a treat to see acclaimed film and stage actress Marsha Mason do what she does so well. She can add Kay to her collection of beautifully defined characters. Brenda Meaney brings a wonderfully feisty edge to the romance-deferred Lorraine. It's also great fun to see how winningly Lauren O'Leary affords a growing maturity to Amber's wild side.

For sure, Murphy guides her fictional characters through the play with a prescribed sentimentality but it rings true to life in a very engaging way. The progression of time for these three is charged by their irrepressible honesty and through unapologetically personal feelings, many of which are consigned to overlap the needs and longing of the other. The title of the play may be a spoiler alert, but there is nothing else about Elaine Murphy's first produced play (Dublin Fringe Festival in 2008) inclined to spoil the pleasure of its company.

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Little Gem
A Performance on Screen
By Elaine Murphy
Directed by Marc Atkinson Borrull
Cast: Marsha Mason (Kay), Brenda Meaney (Lorraine), Lauren O'Leary (Amber)
Scenic Design: Meredith Ries
Costume Design: Christopher Metzger
Lighting Design: Michael O'Connor
sound design:M. Florian Staab
Original music:Ryan Rumery
Running Time 1 hour 40 minutes
Tickets: free, but donation of $25 requested
Filmed for the screen production from April 27, 2021 to May 9 2021, reviewed by Elyse Sommer

©Copyright 2021, Elyse Sommer.
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