If you have never been to a production by the Inis Nua Theatre Company, you are missing out on some seriously good theater. The latest success from artistic director Tom Reing’s company is the aptly titled family drama Little Gem.
The first work from talented playwright Elaine Murphy, the play depicts a year in the lives of three women representing three generations of a family in Dublin, Ireland. Steeped in the tradition of Irish storytelling, the play is structured as three monologues.
The monologue construction gives us a unique insight into the lives of Amber (Sarah Van Auken), her mother, Lorraine (Corinna Burns), and Lorraine’s mother, Kay (Maureen Torsney-Weir).
As the absence of dialogue suggests, the women are not especially close. What they share (besides a genetic connection) is a desire for companionship, specifically male companionship. “I don’t remember the last time someone touched me,” confides Lorraine. A lonely middle-aged woman, Lorraine has been on her own since her divorce. She hasn’t seen her ex-husband, Ray (a homeless drug addict), in years; her relationship with her daughter isn’t much better. Kay isn’t nearly as quiet as her daughter, but she too is lonely. Her husband is gravely ill and though she cares for him deeply, she has needs of her own that he can no longer fulfill. “I haven’t had sex in over a year and it’s killing me,” she tells us with her usual candor.
Unlike her mother and grandmother, Amber is a binge-drinking party girl who is getting her needs met—and then some. In fact, she’s pregnant. The father, Paul, doesn’t intend to support Amber or his newborn son emotionally or financially.
It would be easy to categorize Gem as a play for women. Murphy (who began her career as an actress) wrote the play in part because of what she saw to be a shortage of quality roles for women. The play grew out of Murphy’s work in a women’s health organization, and, in the show’s program, she describes the three characters as a “mishmash of all the women I’ve met over the years.”
And while there are several moments in Gem that resonated more strongly with the women in the audience (such as when Kay recalls her first time shopping for a vibrator), defining Gem as a play for women doesn’t do Murphy’s script justice. Really, anyone who has experienced loneliness or who has struggled with an illness afflicting either yourself or a loved one can easily relate to at least one, if not all, the women in this Irish clan.
Our ability to relate to the play’s characters is due in part to Murphy’s skill as a playwright, but a significant portion of the credit goes to director Kathryn MacMillan and her capable cast. Van Auken struggles a bit with the Irish accent, but while Amber is the most animated character, she is also the least interesting—a fault due more to Murphy’s writing than Van Auken’s acting. Murphy is far more in tune with Kay and Lorraine and in Torsney-Weir’s and Burns’ compelling performances, both women are fascinating. Kay is tougher than her daughter, but while we marvel at her resilience and humor in the face of her husband’s illness, Torsney-Weir’s performance is deeply affecting as Kay watches her husband’s life slip away. Burns is equally convincing, and her introspective and sensitive portrayal of Lorraine ranks among the season’s best performances.
Through Feb. 26. $20-$25. Off-Broad Street Theatre, First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom St. 215.454.9776. inisnuatheatre.org