FORGET BROADWAY CREDITS, here's your theater success story: Last February, Corrib Theatre's Little Gem, helmed by Artistic Director Gemma Whelan, was performed in a bar. During its initial run at the Old Town location of Kells, Whelan & Co. connected with CoHo Productions, and now the play—about three generations of women in a working-class Irish family—is getting a limited but fully staged run at CoHo Theater.
That's good news for low-budget theater, and it's good news for you. "We have an entirely new family," said Whelan of this production's cast. Little Gem features Lauren Mitchell, Deanna Wells, and Michele M. Mariana as 19-year-old Amber, her mother Lorraine, and matriarch Kay, respectively, who are all staring down pretty grim circumstances: an unintended pregnancy, a dying spouse, and the aftermath of a dysfunctional marriage. There's a lot of potential to wallow in melodrama, or lose your audience altogether (Murphy's script is structured almost entirely in monologue form). But for the most part, it's a convincing portrait of a wonderfully idiosyncratic family, with a standout performance from the reliably strong Wells.
Murphy's script isn't perfect: The second half drags (something that wasn't helped by CoHo's subarctic temperatures), and her otherwise spirited story gets tripped up by some boringly retrograde ideas. (There's a pretty icky implication that buying a vibrator counts as cheating on your spouse—no thank you, Elaine Murphy!)
Still, it's a refreshing change of pace to see a play that considers the lives of working-class women worthy of our time and attention. In the year since I started covering theater in Portland, I've been disappointed to see way too many of what I call "who gets the house?" plays. The blueprint of such a production: There is a majestic home purchased and/or built by long-deceased parents. Which spoiled adult child will get to keep it? I get it, guys. A house is a great metaphor. Fine.
But the perspectives of the women in Little Gem aren't the ones we often find in stodgy plays about ancestral homes. Whelan says it best in her director's notes: "Corrib is committed to producing lesser-known voices." Frankly, they're also much more interesting.