Review—WBUR’s The Artery

Central Square Theater’s ‘Precious Little’ Is An Exploration Of Language And Love

Kilian Melloy, March 8, 2017

The hook for Madeleine George’s deceptively deep and complex play sounds easy enough: An expectant single mother, just over 40, learns through a routine test that her unborn child might suffer from any number of severe disabilities, both physical and mental. On the other hand, she — for the baby is a daughter — might turn out perfectly normal. The test offers only the information that the baby has a little extra chromosomal material, but cannot predict how that will affect her development.

A lesser work would have treated this idea as the whole story and spun out all the expected complications, clashes and episodes of soul searching from there. That’s not what the playwright had in mind, however. What George does is draw us by degrees into the life of a successful academic, a brilliant linguist named Brodie (Lee Mikeska Gardner). The baby is only one aspect of Brodie’s life — a major aspect, of course, since the uncertainty of the child’s genetic destiny threatens to derail Brodie’s carefully crafted plans for the future. But Brodie has other hopes and ambitions to balance. Professionally, she’s got a rare opportunity to study a nearly extinct language, but Cleva (Nancy Carroll) — the native speaker she’s located — is in delicate health and comes as a package deal together with her hovering, over-protective daughter (Karoline Xu). On the personal front, Brodie is romantically entangled with Dre (Xu, who plays multiple roles) — a less disciplined, but more vivacious grad student she’s advising.

All these situations pose maddeningly murky ambiguities. As a scientist, Brodie prefers everything to be cut and dried, with answers that can be summarized by “yes” or “no.” What’s more, words have specific meanings, and her interactions with others are frustrating when the people she’s trying to work (or play) with don’t use language with the sort of precision and specificity that Brodie prefers. The most egregious offender is the almost offensively chipper young counselor (Xu) who’s trying to offer Brodie support as she wrestles with the test’s alarming possible meanings.

That dramatic hook — a baby, a mother, a future clouded by doubt — proves the unlikely key to the play’s true theme, that of communication and the irony of how multitudes of words and complex grammar can actually make it harder to convey meaning. The scenic design itself, by Judy Gailen, embeds acoustical symbols and schematics of language that resemble mathematical formulae; Nathan Leigh’s sound design zeroes in on preternaturally reassuring sounds: at one point, the rushing white noise and heartbeat that are audible in the womb; elsewhere, distant calls and rumbles that suggest the soundscape of the jungle primeval.

Director Melia Bensussen knows just how to apply and blend the cast’s performances to achieve a desired effect. Garner plays Brodie with an endearing, comic mix of passion (for her work) and emotional friability. Her discomfort with others takes the form of dryness — exquisitely timed — and she can be raking, as when she’s dealing with the pregnancy counselor’s questions. (“People like me plan our pregnancies,” she replies to one query. “People, you mean like older moms?” the counselor asks. “I mean like lesbians,” she responds.) She finds her way, slowly and affectingly, to a thread of preverbal love and need that takes the form of a growing protectiveness for her child coupled with a yearning for maternal comfort. Gardner’s sure-paced performance is almost a luxurious task compared to what Xu has to do: portraying scads of characters, including small crowds of zoo patrons at the gorilla enclosure — little kids, put-upon adults — and, of course, Brodie’s younger girlfriend.

Like Xu, Nancy Carroll plays multiple parts, including that of Brodie’s unborn child — glimpsed by use of ultrasound, and depicted with the use of a shimmering screen behind which Carroll seems to drift in weightless bliss. In other scenes Carroll portrays a gorilla in a zoo exhibit, and does so convincingly enough that we share Brodie’s fascinated admiration for the creature’s economical, unconsciously graceful movements. Brodie and Dre come to the exhibit because the gorilla is billed as capable of “speech” — somewhat false advertising since the communication is one-way and consists of colorful signals flashed into her enclosure. Blue diamonds and yellow squiggles come crashing into the gorilla’s meditations — at least, this is what the dialogue tells us; we get the idea thanks to Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting design, in which clusters of bare light bulbs blink and twinkle.

And what do gorillas think about? In this telling, her thoughts take the form of eloquent soliloquies about her tranquil, bodily interactions with the world around her — pebbles, grass, comfortingly elemental things. It’s a comic, though also painful, revelation to experience human attempts at communication the way the gorilla does, her reverie constantly shattered by a barrage of disconnected words like “sweet potato,” “kitten” and “jump.” It’s when we eavesdrop on the gorilla’s thoughts that another of the play’s many subtle jokes snaps into focus: We clever humans, proudly wielding language and endless forms of communications technology, think we’re having a dialogue with nature as we seek to unravel its secrets. All too often, though, we end up shouting gibberish into the wind — or, what may amount to pretty much the same thing, talking to ourselves.