Theater Review: “Precious Little” — Prospecting Inner Treasures

Nora Theatre Company’s thoughtful production of Precious Little will encourage you to dig a little deeper into yourself.

Precious Little, by Madeleine George. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Scenic design by Judy Gailen. Costume design by Elizabeth Rocha. Lighting design by Wen-Ling Liao. Sound design by Nathan Leigh. Produced by The Nora Theatre Company. Staged at Central Square Theatre, Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. through March 26.

Lee Mikeska Gardner & Karoline Xu in "Precious Little." Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.

Lee Mikeska Gardner & Karoline Xu in “Precious Little.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.

By David Greenham

We shouldn’t be blamed for thinking (or dreaming) that our lives ought to be more black and white. After all, it would make things so much easier, wouldn’t it? But, contra fantasy, Precious Little, Madeleine George’s compelling one-act proves that…well, precious little is black and white. In fact, as another recent commercial success pointed out, there are at least 50 shades of grey.

In a swift 80 minutes, Precious Little chooses to focus on just three or four of those grey shades. Nora Theatre Company’s talented artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner carries the load as Brodie, a linguist who is in search of lost language, a new family, and confirmation that’s she’s found a way to balance her passion for research and for love. With stellar acting support from Harvard University senior Karoline Xu and Boston stage veteran Nancy E. Carroll, Gardner’s Brodie learns that the path to satisfaction needs to be navigated on several levels.

Brodie’s dogged research has led her to a startling discovery: a lost language that might have Scandinavian roots. It is known only by an older woman who last spoke it when her sisters were alive. The woman’s daughter is interested in the possibilities, but that may not be because she is excited by lost languages or all that concerned with delving into her mother’s past. She’s got a life to live — it will be good to have some money.

Another path in Brodie’s intimidating quest to balance various forms of communication is her intimate relationship with her graduate assistant. It’s an affair that the linguist justifies through a fog of ‘reasoning,’ though even she doesn’t buy her justifications.

One of the funniest scenes in Precious Little is when Brodie, a pregnant 42-year-old single lesbian, goes to a clinic for an amniocentesis. “You’re my first lesbian,” the young lab tech tells her with peculiar pride. Brodie wants to find some sort of emotional clarity while, at the same time, maintaining a clinical approach to the idea of becoming a mother. This is not an easy to do. What she gets from the procedure is not an epiphany so much as the realization that the thing in her belly isn’t a thing at all. “When I saw her on the screen, she actually looked like a baby,” she confesses with understandable shock. With children, as with much of everything else, there’s theory and then, suddenly, there’s practice. And we’re really never truly ready for reality.

And then there’s the gorilla. It turns out that the big simian is central to the story. Scientists have taught the gorilla to respond to words, nouns mostly, using colored lights. Brodie is incredulous at this wasted research, arguing that they’re teaching gorillas to speak instead of saving human languages that are dying. The gorilla, elemental and completely indifferent to what we or anyone else thinks, turns out to be a bit magical. It does not care about the past and its lost or dying languages and could give a fig about the future of relationships and the birth of a baby. The gorilla is all about the present: One word and then the next, and then the next. There’s something lovely about that idea, though for most of us being present in the present is a near-impossible challenge.

Under director Melia Bensussen’s skilled touch, the script’s eclectic scenes skip along with seamless ease. It would be interesting if the playwright had established deeper psychological relationships (expressed through the non-verbal) between Brodie and her grad assistant and the mother and daughter. This is a play about non-verbal as well as verbal communication, yet the playwright misses out on the revelations that would have come with a deeper look at the unsaid, particularly the generational cul-de-sac between mother and daughter. Still, as it is, this play could easily become wordy or obvious; Bensussen wisely keeps the talky proceedings keyed into the moment and moving on, with grace, to the next. That’s a tougher task than it seems.

Judy Gailen’s scenic design nimbly presents aspects of the linguist’s mind. And her clever use of a rolling screen to suggest the monitor for the amniocentesis is very effective. Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting design posits a welcome contrast to the realistic (and usually far too harsh lighting) of the play’s labs and zoo. Elizabeth Rocha’s costumes are well designed for quick transformations, and Nathan Leigh’s inviting soundscape suggests that there’s more here than meets the eye.

As Brodie, Gardner is hard working and moves through the script’s challenging transitions with grit. There are parts of Brodie that fit her performance better than others, but the dramatist has raised the bar awfully high here. This is a somewhat disjointed character, with too many selves crammed into one personality. Gardner does her level best to make all the different versions of Brodie into one person.

Xu is delightful as the inexperience tech in the clinic. Her uncomfortable smile fills up the room. She’s also pleasing as a mother and her children at the zoo watching the gorilla. As Brodie’s graduate assistant and lover, however, she’s less successful, somewhat flummoxed by the not particularly well developed role of the daughter of the woman who speaks the lost language.

Nancy E. Carroll is terrific, even as a gorilla. (What other actress could you say that about?) We first meet her as the ape, and we have barely any idea what’s going on in the scene. Yet we could watch it all day. Carroll’s gorilla’s economy of movement matches its economy of words. When we see the ape in the zoo scenes, she’s fun and playful, making much comic fodder of a wave of her arm and a sly glance. Likewise, as the older woman who is the last living connection to a lost language, Carroll expertly dramatizes the challenge of her character having to dig deep within herself and her past to release the imprisoned words. The moment when the woman’s words finally flow — easily and authentically — is the loveliest moment in the production.

By play’s end, Brodie is back at the clinic, talking to the lab tech’s mentor (also Carroll, grounded and specific). Brodie confesses that “nothing feels right anymore.” But the mentor mentors us all: “Whatever you do,” she states, “something will happen. It will be a new life. And you will be in it.”

Precious Little doesn’t preach, or sell, or even hint at any slam-dunk, feel-good message. It confidently lays out complexities for us to consider and reflect upon. And the NTC’s thoughtful production will encourage you to dig a little deeper into yourself, to take some time and prospect in your inner life. Go ahead and shovel. You’ll find there’s more than “precious little” in there.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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