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Review: Three generations explore angst in City Theatre's 'Little Gem'

| Monday, April 8, 2013, 8:20 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
From left, Hayley Nielsen, Cary Anne Spear and Robin Walsh star in 'Little Gem' play at the City Theatre.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
From left, Hayley Nielsen, Cary Anne Spear and Robin Walsh star in 'Little Gem' at the City Theatre.

The title of Elaine Murphy's play — “Little Gem” — says it all.

Even if you spent an hour or two thumbing through Roget's Thesaurus, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more suitable title for this warmly entertaining drama about three stressed-out Irish women.

It's a carefully polished jewel that sparkles with well-drawn characters, each of whom speaks in a distinctive voice as they explore different facets of family relationships and communication.

Nineteen-year-old Amber, her 40-something mother, Lorraine, and her 60-plus grandmother Kay are united by birth yet isolated from each other by their inability to communicate and share.

It's not that they lack the ability to express themselves. They've got plenty to say, and they say it vividly when talking to the audience in the production that's playing at City Theatre through May 5.

They do it almost entirely in separate monologues that emphasize their wit, intelligence and strength as well as their isolation.

Each woman is at a pivotal point in her life.

Amber is about to lose her party-girl freedom. Kay, still deeply in love with her husband, refuses to share the burden of caring for him in his declining health. Lorraine buries her concerns for both of them in fits of cleaning.

The challenges Murphy's characters face are not monumental or tragic. They're the small troubles, sadnesses and frustrations that are familiar to regular people and audiences that can identify with.

Set in contemporary Dublin, the play moves swiftly over seven or eight months, during which we see these characters evolve with refreshing humor and genuine growth.

“Little Gem” is performed in the intimate Lester Hamburg Studio Theater, where director Kimberly Senior elected to stage the play in the round. That increases the relationship between audience and performer as the actresses are close enough to make eye contact as they tell their stories.

Set designer Jack Magaw and lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski accommodate the play's many moods and locations with an assortment of flooring patterns and lighting fixtures that carry us through bars, houses, work places and exteriors.

Hayley Nielsen (Amber), Robin Walsh (Lorraine) and Kay (Cary Ann Spear) create characters that are precise, sympathetic and memorable. Even when they're at odds with each other, it's easy for audiences to appreciate each woman's point of view.

Although the men in their life are never physically present, the women describe them with such focused accuracy that they become recognizable.

The play's language and accent constantly reminds you of its Irish location. Monologues are heavily peppered with Dublin slang. Translations for some 70 of the words and terms are printed in the program.

It's a tribute to the performers, the director and dialect coach Don Wadsworth that the list is largely unnecessary. For the most part, actions, expressions and tones of voice convey meaning to unfamiliar expressions such as “manky” or “all wonder and no bap.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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