CAMBRIDGE — Madeleine George’s “Precious Little” is a play about a linguist. So it’s a little surprising that the first character to appear on stage is a gorilla with a vocabulary of just 30 words. Sometimes, though, communication transcends language. That’s certainly the message of the Nora Theatre Company production up now at Central Square Theater.
Sarah Brodie is a 42-year-old linguistics professor with a lot on her plate. She’s exploring an endangered language, Kari, that “combines a Finno-Ugric substrate with both Slavic and Turkic substrates.” The 20-something grad student she’s advising, Dre, is also her girlfriend. Last but certainly not least, having strived for and achieved tenure, Brodie (as everyone calls her) has gotten pregnant, but an amniocentesis reveals that the baby might suffer from as-yet-undetermined birth defects and could prove unable to master language.
But “Precious Little” isn’t really about that irony, or about whether Brodie will terminate the pregnancy. It’s about how she connects, or doesn’t, with the people around her, most of whom are women, and all of whom are played by just two actresses. There’s Cleva, the frail, elderly native speaker of Kari who’s making recordings for Brodie, and Cleva’s daughter, Evelyn, whose principal concern seems to be the $75 per session that Brodie is offering. There’s Rhiannon, Brodie’s genetic counselor-in-training, and Rhiannon’s mentor, Dorothy. There’s ultrasound technician Gloria, and Dre, whom George describes as a “quick-witted pain-in-the-ass tomboy.”
Most important, perhaps, there’s the female zoo gorilla. Brodie’s bonding with her, at the end of the play, is the climax of a trajectory in which words come to matter less and less. Brodie doesn’t talk to the gorilla; rather, she discovers body language.
Judy Gailen’s design for Nora follows George’s direction that “the sparer the set, the better.” The back wall is covered with phonetic representations of Kari (a language George invented for the play); the floor boasts a sonogram bordered by the phrase “news items” on one side and its phonetic equivalent on the other. A table, a few metal chairs, a chaise lounge with a throw for the gorilla, and a rolling cart complete Gailen’s set.
The play itself is also spare — at 75 minutes (with no intermission), maybe too spare. For all that “Precious Little” talks about connections, it packs precious little emotional punch. And the director of the Nora production, Melia Bensussen, doesn’t help by having Karoline Xu make the younger parts unsympathetic. Xu seems an able actress, but her Rhiannon is giddy and giggly, her Dre is callow, her Evelyn is calculating, and her Gloria is antiseptic. Xu also plays a variety of clueless zoo-goers. Much of what she says is unintelligible; she needs to slow down.
Brodie, as portrayed by Nora artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner, is brusque and businesslike but also vulnerable, especially at the prospect of the amniocentesis needle. If her relationship with Dre seems a mismatch, well, that’s George’s point. In the course of the play, Brodie moves away from the inane babble of Rhiannon and the zoo-goers and toward the contained, meaningful utterances of Dorothy and Cleva. Gardner lights up when Brodie describes the gorilla’s fur as “like wood grain” or listens to Cleva remembering life in her Kari-speaking village. By the end, Brodie has broken off with Dre and is fantasizing about a partner, or parent, or even primate, who would turn on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and make them dinner.
In other words, Nancy E. Carroll’s three characters. Dorothy makes sense with every syllable; Cleva turns each word Brodie gives her to pronounce into a bit of cultural history; the gorilla appeals just by being herself. Carroll shows how precious little can still be a lot.
Play by Madeleine George. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Presented by Nora Theatre Company. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through March 26. Tickets: $16-$62, 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.