Preview: City Theatre's 'Little Gem' explores struggles of three working-class Irish women

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Director Kimberly Senior's long and varied body of work reads like a who's who of playwrights, from the classics to the contemporary. Amid names such as Chekhov, Williams, Miller and McDonagh is Irish playwright David Grieg, whose "The Monster in the Hall" was a lauded City Theatre production last year.

Mutual friends had been telling both Ms. Brigden and Ms. Senior that they should work together and looking at that list, it seemed that their paths were bound to cross. It came to pass when the Chicago-based director was asked by Tracy Brigden, City's producing artistic director, to make her Pittsburgh debut with "Little Gem," by Irish playwright Elaine Murphy.

"If you would look at my resume and City Theatre's resume, there's a crazy amount of overlap. Tracy and I talk about other plays and we have the exact same taste," says the petite, energetic director. "I think there's a lot of variety in it, and that it's grown and changed over the years. It's so interesting that we've had these parallel passions and interests."

'Little Gem'

Where: City Theatre's Hamburg Studio Theatre, South Side.

When: Previews Saturday through April 4: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday and 8 p.m. next Thursday. April 5-May 5: 7 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. (Check for variations on the City website.)

Tickets: $35 to $55; 412-431-CITY (2489) or

In "Little Gem," three generations of Dublin women -- grandmother Kay, her daughter Loraine and Loraine's daughter Amber -- narrate their tales of the worst year ever. Each woman is experiencing an emotional crisis, and the men in their lives add to their burdens. The pregnant Amber has a history of drug and alcohol abuse and her boyfriend is unreliable; Lorraine has been separated from her partner Ray, a homeless drug addict who occasionally drops in to wreak havoc with her life; and Kay is the caretaker for her husband, Gem, who has suffered a stroke and is unable to feed or dress himself.

The play is told in overlapping monologues that Ms. Senior likens to reading fiction, when you are allowed insight into the minds of characters. As an example of how their relationships are revealed, the director chooses a point in the play when Amber tells her grandmother she is pregnant before telling her mother. When Loraine hears the news, her disappointment is evident.

"You can see from the young girl's perspective, her not having the words to talk to her mother, and you can see the sadness that there's this chasm and she doesn't know how to cross it. And the very next monologue, her mother is talking about how hurt she is that her daughter can't come to her," Ms. Senior said.

"In this case, you get three people who are lobbying for their point of view. I'm often saying to the actors, be your own attorney out there."

The director knew the play, which debuted at the 2008 Dublin Fringe Festival, was "totally up my alley" when she received the script from Ms. Brigden.

"I joked for a long time that I always did plays that made you want to call your mom -- either to tell her you love her or to tell her you hate her. I feel like this is back in that milieu for me," she said.

The three actresses are familiar faces from Pittsburgh stages: Hayley Nielsen, Cary Anne Spear and Robin Walsh. Their worst year and the humor that helps them through their struggles will play out from the perch of an in-the-round set design by Jack Magaw, Ms. Senior's husband. The couple's introduction to Pittsburgh had been a 2010 visit when "The Morini Strad" was playing in City's intimate Hamburg Studio Theatre, which now houses "Little Gem."

"I was immediately enchanted with the Hamburg and wanted to work in that space," Ms. Senior said.

Her first long-term experience in Pittsburgh has been a revelation. The New York native said she's had trouble communicating her impressions about the city to her parents, because she said there's no point of comparison.

"It's dense and rich and exciting and it's kind of mosaic, and it has such a strong sense of identity," she said. "It's a really cool spot. I'm very happy here."


Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.


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