Three generations of women navigate life, love & those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem

Top to bottom: Rebecca De La Cour, Barbara Taylor & Billie Jean Shannon. Photo by Sean Walsh.

The Toronto Irish Players (TIP) opened their production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Cliona Kenny, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage to a packed house last night.

Drawing from the old tradition of the Gaelic storyteller (the Seanachai), Little Gem’s commentator device uses a Trinitarian approach—in this case, the story is told from the perspectives of three women: a granddaughter, a mother and grandmother from the same family.

Set in present-day Dublin, we open on Amber’s (Billie Jean Shannon) tale of the fateful night of her Debs (a city-wide high school prom), and the complex emotional dance of relationships with her boyfriend Paul and school teach-like bff Jo. Then, there’s her mother Lorraine (Rebecca De La Cour), a single mom, husband Ray long gone to who knows where, who works in a department store. She’s been forced to go on leave and see a shrink after she loses it on an extremely annoying and vindictive regular customer. And there’s Kay, Lorraine’s ma (Barbara Taylor), a breast cancer survivor and 24/7 caregiver to her husband Gem, struggling with an itch of her own.

Lovely, compelling—and endearingly comical—work from these three actors; each bringing her own brand of outspoken cheek, feistiness and strength to these characters. Shannon gives us a youthful, impetuous, and keen sense of social awareness and observation to Amber. Mouthy and full of teen sass and mortification, Amber’s a master at projecting an image of giving zero fucks, but there’s a tender, loving heart there that also longs to be loved. De La Cour brings a desperate housewife, poignant sense of resiliency to Lorraine. An anxious, exhausted member of the sandwich generation, Lorraine struggles to communicate with her distant teenage daughter, and worries about the well-being of her aging mother and seriously ill father; and she finds that she can’t stress clean away her own sense of loneliness and lack of a definitive life of her own. Taylor is a laugh riot and a force to be reckoned with as the family matriarch. Now in the winter years of life, there’s heat in that tired 60-something body yet—and Kay’s stubborn sense of resolve overcomes any sense of pride or shame as she actively, and at times hilariously, seeks solutions to her problems. Eschewing spoilers, I’ll have to leave it at that—and you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Life goes on for these three women; and unexpected events change the course of the day-to-day, forcing challenging decisions, personal growth, and acts of strength and courage. And, in the process, the lives of these three women—living separately together—are brought together into new and closer bonds of family and womanhood.

Nicely staged, on an effective and minimalist set featuring beautifully rendered charcoal family portraits (set by Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy), each character has her own playing area, with each storyteller staying within her own space until these inextricably intertwined lives gradually come closer together during the final scenes.

Three generations of women navigate life, love and those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem.

Little Gem continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until March 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. The Irish Players are an extremely popular local community company, so advance booking strongly recommended.

And no worries about thinking this is a “chick play,” the men were laughing as hard as the women. Having said that, it also struck me that, even though Mother’s Day is some months away, this is the perfect girls’ night out for women, their moms and grandmothers.

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An excavation of mothers & daughters in Midden

First off, let’s get a big question out of the way – I know it was a big one for me. What the heck is a “midden”? Director Maureen Lukie answers this question in her Director’s Notes in the Midden program: it is a “form of burial mound found in archeological digs, where you can see layers of relics revealing how ancient peoples lived.” The word has also been used to refer to a messy space, as in a child’s disaster area bedroom, and also as a place where witches reside.

In the Toronto Irish Players’ (TIP) production of Morna Regan’s play Midden, “midden” refers to the place where family history is kept “preserved but not whole” – and open to a variety of interpretations when unearthed. The same story is never told the same way twice – and retold moments and events are shaped by individual points of view and rationalizations, and complex, multiple layers of family dynamic.

Yulia Shtern’s beautiful and practical set, the Sweeney kitchen, recently redecorated in anticipation of a daughter’s return, illustrates the sense of layers perfectly. The lower half of the walls is the colour of clay and the upper half is wallpapered with a pattern that appears to be close-up images of the seashore – layers of sea shells and stones washed up along the water’s edge – and the linoleum floor below like clay stones underfoot. The kitchen is ground zero for this multi-generational excavation. Even Ruth’s clothing designs (gorgeous costumes designed by Bernie Hunt) include a family history: Irish lace and three dropped stitches, taught to her by Dophie, so as to avoid the hubris of perfection. Three generations of mothers and daughters, secrets and grudges.

Ruth returns home after a long, somewhat estranged absence in America, now a successful fashion designer preparing to launch her Maiden City collection in Ireland. While she was away, struggling to establish her career, her grandmother Dophie has been struggling with Alzheimer’s, her Ma with looking after Dophie, and her younger sister Aileen with trying to leave home and establish a small transport business with her boyfriend. Ruth is also dealing with an identity crisis, both personal and cultural, and has just fled from her impending marriage to her fiancé Matt. The significant men in each woman’s life, some no longer living, are mentioned but never seen – and it is the women’s relationships, especially among the family, that is the focus here.

The lovely all-female cast features Lucy Farrell (Ruth),  Cliona Kenny (Dophie, Ruth’s grandmother), Barbara Taylor (Ma, Ruth’s mother), Sharon Taylor (Aileen, Ruth’s younger sister – doing double duty as producer) and Jennifer Hough (Mabs, Ruth’s friend and business partner). Farrell does a nice job with Ruth’s internal and external conflicts, trying to reach out and establish connections while keeping her boundaries intact at the same time – as are all the characters here. Kenny gives a lovely nuanced performance as Dophie, haunted by memories of the past that are all too clear compared with her tenuous grasp of the present. Barbara Taylor shows in Ma a woman caught up in the lives of her family, who she loves, but who has given up so much of herself and become embittered in the process – in North America, we’d say she was of the sandwich generation. Sharon Taylor’s Aileen, at turns hurt and rebellious, is also caught – unable to leave home and caught between life with her family and the life she longs for with a business and family of her own. Hough is a spit fire riot as Mabs – Ruth’s touchstone and confidant – juggling a family of her own with work and managing to look on the lighter side of things.

In Midden, as in life, we see – along with Ruth – that “You can go home, but you can’t go back.”

Midden continues its run on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until March 9. Please visit the TIP website for details and reservations: http://www.torontoirishplayers.com/index.php

And congrats to TIP for being named Irish Person of the Year 2013!