There are many gems, but none come to mind at the start of "Little Gem," Elaine Murphy's three-person play from Ireland, now at City Theatre. The lives led by this daughter, mother and grandmother, as we soon learn they are, have nothing gem-like about them -- not even emerald green.
Amber, up first, is a resentful, tightly wound teenager, talking of a night of drinking in obscenity-laced language, at least to the extent that you can understand her slang-ridden North Dublin talk at all. Lorraine, her mother, may be in trouble in her job as a shop clerk. And Kay, Lorraine's mother, is caring for a dying husband and imagining how she might fill a void and scratch an itch.
Then back to Lorraine, then Amber, then Kay, back and forth and back and forth in succeeding monologues, one character often standing in silent witness as another unpacks another layer of her life, the story unfolding backward even as it progresses forward.
And soon enough a gem begins to feel like a very appropriate metaphor, in the way it shows different facets as you turn it this way or that, coming to know it, gaining access to its refracting depths.
Each woman has depth, of course. None is what she at first seems, although each is always that, too. But the play is no static revelation: the gems are in movement, the women's lives changing as they live them out in front of us in narrative, time passing and their relationships changing and maturing as it does.
There are more than three characters in the play. Mainly, there are the men -- that dying husband, another burnt out and good luck to him, another who has more promise than at first apparent (body hair notwithstanding), and a loser who may not be so very lost as he seems.
To say this is a women's play is to say it's imbued throughout with women's experience, struggle and insight, and it is not in that dismissive category in which fictions are roped off as soft or sentimental.
It is also an Irish play, which led me to expect something in the more abstract line of the monologue plays of Brian Friel ("Faith Healer"), Conor McPherson ("Port Authority") or even Samuel Beckett (passim). Not at all. No one need fear the demands of those great prose poems. Once past that attention-stiffening first monologue (much of which is included in the page of "Dub slang" in the program), it's clear sailing.
The play is a shade sentimental. Maybe I have those sterner Irish models too much in mind. But the sentiment generally feels earned, and the sniffles of the woman at my side were evidence of its potency.
That impact gains from the setting in City's intimate Hamburg Studio, which is arranged in the round, with only a small, parti-colored circular platform in the middle and those useful pathways at the room's four corners. And just when the inner depths begin to yield their refracting riches, the room is lit as by the glints from deep in a gem -- small lamps of many varieties that float into the acting space and then later hover above, joined by a couple of dozen more.
Credit the gorgeous lighting design of Andy Ostrowski, working with the set by Jack Magaw. Dialect coach Don Wadsworth gets results generally satisfying to an undemanding American ear. And director Kimberly Senior must have provided the spatial and emotional support to allow the three actors to create their world out of a void.
But chief praise goes to those three, and of them, the pineapple of perfection (as another Irish playwright once wrote) is Robin Walsh as Lorraine. Hers is a performance to wonder at, moving freely from the brink of crazy to relaxed and funny. Can any actor in Pittsburgh, male or female, glow with intensity like Ms. Walsh?
She's intimidating company, but Cary Anne Spear (Kay) and Hayley Nielsen (Amber) complete the trio with conviction. Ms. Spear manages to be both birdlike and tough, and in one scene goes from near farce to pathos in a half blink. Ms. Nielsen launches the play in gritty fashion and continues to alternate foul-mouthed bravado and poignant innocence.
The "gem" of the title has several specific references. The most potent comes near the end, when the three women -- united physically in a way they haven't been before -- are joined by a fourth character they make real, a little gem in whom the emotion of the play crystallizes, celebrating the generations as they revolve through the cycles of life.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.