A thief and a nun duck into a closet under the stairs: this is not the setup for a joke but for Little Thing, Big Thing, the newest work from award-winning playwright and performer Donal O’Kelly, having made its way to the United States as part of New York City’s annual 1st Irish Festival. Ex-con Larry O’Donnell ends up in that closet with Sister Martha McCann, who is returning from Nigeria to oversee the sale of the thematically evocative Lazarus Convent, when their paths cross by chance in the midst of his pulling off one last job. Larry’s final heist, a valuable statue of the Virgin, is interrupted because Martha has a second task in Ireland: to fulfil a death-bed request to hand-deliver a mysterious roll of film, one of the titular little things, to the Nigerian Henry Barr; but Barr is far from the only person who wants to get his hands what it contains. As in so many mismatched-buddy narratives, they head off on a cross-country road trip, but the unexpected and compelling discoveries that they make about themselves and their mission along the way resurrect a sense of moral purpose for both characters.
Little Thing, Big Thing fits comfortably into that swath of contemporary Irish drama that combines crime and comedy. Its muscular 80 minutes runtime maintains a straight-ahead momentum peppered with hilarious, often casually profane banter. At the same time, however, interwoven with all of the laughs, it manages admirably to build effective pathos and genuine tension and suspense. Making this accomplishment all the more impressive is the fact that O’Kelly himself and sometime-collaborator Sorcha Fox bring to life not only Larry and Martha, respectively, but also the rest of the characters whom they encounter -- French tourists, gardaí, and a junkie who once took a job skills class in photography, for example -- on their unexpected and dangerous quest. Working with no more than a few spare sound effects, a single film cannister, and two chairs on a stage partly wrapped by a partition suggesting a patched and damaged wire cage, O’Kelly and Fox slide as fluidly from the protagonists to secondary characters and back, and between scene changes created only with words, as their protagonists do from realistic dialogue to borderline poetic, sometimes Beckettian narration of present-tense internal monologues. The result is a world and a journey, both external and internal, that feels fully realized and impactful.
The specific enemy here reveals itself to be corporate malfeasance and its attendant environmental damage and exploitation, but the play’s fundamental argument reaches beyond those particulars to any situation in which the wealthy and powerful attempt to create and control what is accepted as truth. The play urges us to invest in the idea that little things, little people, can--indeed must--be the ones to enact big changes. The roll of film, physically tiny and perhaps seemingly outdated can yet, like the middle-aged protagonists, still be potentially powerful, even in the face of authorities that range from indifferent or actively hostile. The redemption and newfound purpose of these two people with substantial regrets about their pasts is ornamented by motifs involving moonlit lakes, waterfalls, and leaping salmon set against images of oil spills, gasoline inflaming open wounds, and polluted rivers. However, just as the holes in the wire scenery suggest only the possibility of escaping the cage, the play, to its credit, offers hope rather than blind optimism. It suggests that pitting little things against big things is both intimidatingly difficult and frighteningly costly. But even if such a battle is, as Larry describes his final job, a long trip on a broken arse, it is admirable, and more importantly, necessary.
Little Thing, Big Thing is a must-see: it is a beautifully written, consummately performed adventure that spans Ireland from Mayo to Dublin, combining wit and melancholy with idealism and pragmatism to illustrate the relationships between the global and personal to show just how much the little things matter in the big picture. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler
Image at top, L-R: Sorcha Fox and Donal O'Kelly in Little Thing, Big Thing. Photo by Pat Redmond
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.
When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.