Little Thing, Big Thing is proof of just how far you can travel in the theater without ever really going anywhere. In Donal O’Kelly’s play, performed here as part of Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival, Martha (Sorcha Fox) and Larry (also played by O’Kelly) make a mad dash around Ireland, racing through cities and countryside at speed as they narrowly avoid capture, drowning and gunshots. The actors who play them are confined to a space roughly comparable to a modest studio apartment, and they have few tools — no costume changes, only a few sound cues, and a sparse set —and yet they manage to summon an entire world of characters and places. Fox and O’Kelly, under the direction of Jim Culleton, are experts at making the most of an audience’s power to imagine, making their performance, like the play itself, a lesson in the power of small things.
Larry and Martha are an unlikely pair. He’s a down-on-his-luck Irish ex-con on the nervous side. She’s a savvy and coolly confident Scottish nun recently in from Nigeria. They’re thrown together in Dublin when his final attempt to clear his slate and her mission to deliver an old film roll to a man she’s never met brings them to the same place and into the same mess of trouble with a former Nigerian Army major turned corporate security agent. O’Kelly and Fox also play a host of other minor characters, deftly assuming a new accent or posture a flash, whom they encounter along the way.
The plot can sometimes be hard to follow due to the fast-paced changes in environment and personalities, as well as a slightly cumbersome backstory involving an oil company, Nigerian politics and a murder. But largely, the show drives unstoppably forward, with an infectious, unstoppable momentum powered by the dynamic and endlessly energetic pair at the helm.
Though it has the feel of an action thriller, Little Thing, Big Thing maintains a great sense of humor — sometimes slapstick, sometimes dialogue-driven, and always distinctly Irish. There are lots of exclamations of “Shite!” and “Jeysus!” O’Kelly spends half the time on stage with his eyes comically crossed, face red and beaded with sweat, either crawling, dodging or hollering. But the comedy never overwhelms what ultimately becomes a story about an improbable but genuine partnership in the face of massive obstacles.
At times, O’Kelly’s script gets a bit swept up in its underdog message, particularly when Larry delivers a cri de coeur (typical of the play as a whole, he is at this point in disguise as a blind priest) toward the end. “We know that Truth exists! in our souls and the brave things we do! Little things, and big things!” he says. “The path of Truth is the rocky road of Love in this fuck-up of a life! And I will not give up, Martha! I will do every little thing to find the big thing! Truth! And Love!”
You’ll have to forgive the occasional overstep. This is a small production in many ways but it has a big heart.