Imitate the action of the salmon.
Sister Martha (Rachel Tibbetts) has a little secret, or maybe a big one. It all depends, you see, on what happens at the end of this Irish picaresque by Donal O’Kelly. Little Thing, Big Thing zips by in a quick 80 minutes or so without intermission until it ends with a bang, as Sister Martha and her partner in crime, Larry O’Donnell (Joe Hanrahan), attempt to carry out her potentially impossible mission. But she has accepted that mission, and Larry, at first reluctant to help her, becomes more involved with each step of the adventure.
The two are an unlikely pair from the get-go. Larry is an ex-con whose story isn’t quite what it seems on the surface. Sister Martha is far from a typical nun, her only nod to convention being her objection to Larry’s constant use of the word “fuck” as adjective, verb, noun—he’d make it an adverb if he could. She is just back from doing charity work in Nigeria. While there, she meets a dying man. He gives her a roll of old-fashioned photography film, and charges her to place it directly into the hands of “Henry Barr,” and with his last breath, he tells her, “trust no one.”
The action begins with Larry asking a friend to take a photo of his backside. He has defaulted on his rent, and the property owner locked him out. There’s a long story—well, of course there is; he’s Irish—about shinnying up a drainpipe and a cat scratch on the arse that required medical attention. He’s hoping photos with help him make a civil case and change his luck because life isn’t going too well at the moment.
There is no scenery except a couple of platforms and chairs, so all the action is both pantomimed and described by the character performing it. Therefore, much depends on the fiddle and guitar background music (Will Bonfiglio and Jason Scroggins) and video projections on the back wall showing physical settings (Michael B. Perkins). The uncredited lighting design is also key, but the fact that director Ellie Schweyte is an award-winning lighting designer may be a clue to his/her identity (and following clues becomes a big thing in Dublin and its outskirts throughout the show).
Sister Martha is being chased for the object she carries, which she realizes on a visit to her old school and convent to prepare it for sale. She meets Larry coincidentally as he has been ordered by his associates to steal a statue of the Blessed Mother from that very convent. Watching Hanrahan describe this action is an acting lesson in itself. After a while, these descriptions, complete with verbal sound effects, become almost like background noise as the imagination takes over and carries the audience along with it. Tibbetts and Hanrahan also play all the secondary characters using only voices and movement to indicate a shift, and it’s fun to watch them play scenes with themselves as they are forced by the powerful men who are after Sister Martha’s film roll to go on the run together. Schwetye’s direction is on the mark throughout because achieving this delicate balance is no doubt harder than it looks. It surely helps that these three are experienced at working together, as you’ll see when you read the program.
As Sister Martha searches for Henry Barr, the two run into every obstacle imaginable. However, there is one moment that goes a long way to delineating these characters, and it’s lovely. The two are by a river and the musicians kick into “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” as they watch a salmon swim upstream to spawn. Sister is certain that he makes it, but Larry figures he got stuck halfway up the waterfall. At this point, she is the “glass half full” optimist, and he’s the “half empty” pessimist. Along the way, subtle personality shifts are indicated by the recurring motif of that salmon.
The play itself is ingenious and the acting is excellent even though it seemed to take Hanrahan a few moments to get the engine started on Saturday evening. After that, he was all in, but the dialects can be distracting. Hanrahan’s Larry goes in and out of his Irish brogue and some of his characters sound British or American. Tibbetts’ Martha is half-Scottish and grew up there, as indicated by the recurring strains of “Loch Lomond” more than her speech. It is a tricky dialect to be sure, and it’s not as simple as saying “doon” and “oot” (down and out) with otherwise Irish inflections. When Tibbetts does portray Irishers, she has excellent diction. It’s a little thing, but it can be a big thing if elocution bothers you. Still, I hope that won’t keep you away from catching the production while you can. | Andrea Braun
For more information, contact MidnightCompany.com, a co-producer with Slighly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Tickets can be purchased through BrownPaperTickets.com and performances take place at Avatar Studios through Feb. 11, 2017. Other credits go to Jennifer “JC” Krajicek for costumes; Pamela Reckamp, dialect coach; and Kristin Rion, stage manager.