Like most really good plays, this new work by Madeleine George is about more than one thing. But one of its concerns involves both up-to-the-minute science and the human complexities that play out on the flip side of such studies.
As befits a play largely about language and communication, the protagonist is a linguist. Brodie believes that language is the key to unlocking human consciousness. Books proliferate on the subject, and so do popular media. (I must have heard half a dozen episodes of public radio's Radio Lab that touched on the subject.)
So what happens when Brodie studies the all-but-last speaker of a dying Asian language, even as she (a) learns that it's possible that her unborn child is developmentally delayed, perhaps to the point of lacking the power to speak and (b) makes the acquaintance of a zoo-bound gorilla who has been taught the rudiments of human language?
It should first be noted that Precious Little is foremost very entertaining -- funny and fast-paced, and clocking in at an intermissionless 75 minutes. Yet it's quite full -- of action, dialogue and ideas.
Especially poignant, and telling of the language theme, is the relationship between Brodie (played by Kelly McAndrew) and Cleva (Laurie Klatscher), the frail, elderly woman whose language Brodie is trying to catalog before it vanishes.
Cleva hasn't spoken her native tongue in decades, simply because there's no one to speak it to. (The fact that she never learned English very well is another of the parallels between her and the ape -- parallels the play emphasizes in numerous ways, including apportioning both roles to the same actor.) As Brodie prompts her to recall, the effort summons up memories for Cleva -- good ones and terrible ones both. Language in this case is nearly equivalent to consciousness.
At the same time, Brodie confronts the notion that her child might not have language -- and struggles with whether to continue her pregnancy. This anxiety is at least part of what's prompts her fascination with the gorilla, who is both not-ape and not-really-human -- someone between consciousnesses, or states of being.
And it's most moving that the story of a protagonist who starts out insisting on the primacy of language resolves (or at least concludes) with a potently wordless visual that symbolizes the only solace she can just now find in a world suddenly grown uncertain.
Precious Little continues at City Theatre through Sun., April 3 (www.citytheatre.org)