Donal O'Kelly and Sorcha Fox in a scene
from “Little Thing, Big Thing.”
By Orla O'Sullivan
What might a criminal and a nun have in common? That's one of the questions asked by the first play to open in Origin’s 2015 1st Irish Festival, “Little Thing, Big Thing,” from Dublin’s Fishamble theatre company. A conscience is the answer that emerges.
“Little Thing, Big Thing” proposes that small details can have major consequences—such as the photos Sister Martha is carrying for a friend—and that the little people can become great by taking a stance against overwhelming forces, including globalization and the military-industrial complex.
Though described as “a darkly comic thriller” the play was a bit too earnest and at other times farcical to ever feel truly menacing. Yet, it was engaging, funny, fast moving and frequently poetic.
Donal O’Kelly, the play’s author, and one of the two actors on stage, writes at times in the style of flash fiction or Dylan Thomas, layering impressionistic word upon word. When Sister Martha (Sorcha Fox) is sent back to Ireland to sell a convent after 20 years in Nigeria, her interior monologue runs in her crisp diction as follows: “clanketa the cattlegrid between the lofty pillars, gravelly up the slow bend towards the, dusky battlements of 20 years since, last I gazed on Lazarus!”
When Larry, a working-class Dubliner, forced into a final crime before being let out of a criminal gang, describes his experience of being in that abandoned convent in County Mayo on the same dark night, it’s more colloquial. He has in his possession the valuable statue of the Virgin Mary he was sent to steal, and dragging it says, “The only way to grip her is under the tits, feels weird but has to be done.”
Finding themselves under one roof is all ne’er-do-well Larry and no-nonsense Sr. Martha have in common… until a third-party enters the building. And so begins an overnight car chase and a journey of discovery as Sr. Martha joins the dots between the Scarab Oil Co. in Nigeria and the planned, new Scarab Atlantic Pipeline in Mayo (did someone say Shell?). As they rush to Ireland’s highest court, at the Four Courts complex on the Liffey with crucial evidence against the pipeline their journey is likened to that of a salmon they encountered swimming upstream.
That earnestness sometimes jars against farce, as when a garda at a roadside checkpoint encourages Larry to join AA. Also, it can be hard to follow the rapid twists and figuring out friend from enemy can be a challenge. Still, the acting is great, as the duo embody multiple characters including a heroic heroin addict. They are directed by the accomplished Jim Culleton.
The dialogue also makes you want to stay for the ride. Early on, when Sr. Martha dismisses Larry as a thief, he retorts. “Who’s a thief!? Do you know what they have in the Vatican vaults, Sister!?”
“Little Thing, Big Thing” is the longest running event in this year’s festival. Its run at 59E59 Theaters does not conclude until Sept. 27--the night before the award ceremony. (The festival does not officially end until Oct. 4 because 1st Irish encompasses plays besides the seven that are in competition, plus a host of special events.)
Also featured in the 1st Irish Fest in first half of September are: Pat Fenton’s “Stoopdreamer” -- remembering post-war Windsor Terrace, an Irish enclave in Brooklyn – underway at the Cell; “Pondling,” on a childhood crush, also underway at 59E59; and “Selfie,” a solo show by comedian Pat Shortt at the Irish Arts Center from tomorrow.
Special events include a celebration of Northern Ireland’s cultural contribution at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House, Saturday, and the 100th literary salon of the Irish American Writers & Artists next Tuesday at the Cell on West 23rd Street.
While on Saturday, the19th, Origin presents a program called “Breaking Ground,” with writers Bernard McMullan, Charly Clive, Jimmy Kerr, Jenny Green & Fiona Walsh, and Tim Ruddy.
Origin’s 1st Irish Festival runs at multiple venues around NYC from now to Oct. 4. For more information visit www.1stIrish.org.