By LIZ BYRON. Precious Little is an ambitious play; it explores the manner in which languages grow, evolve, and die, and the ways in which people communicate across languages, within the same language, and without language at all. It deals with single parenthood, the prospect of raising a developmentally challenged child, and the realities of caring for an ageing parent. Also, there’s a gorilla. That’s right, a gorilla.
The play, written by Madeleine George, focuses around the story of Brodie (Sondra Glynn), a linguistics professor who chooses to become pregnant via artificial insemination, and the choices she must make when she learns that her child may very likely be born with mental handicaps, unable to communicate via spoken language. Along the way, Brodie faces criticism from medical professionals about her “advanced age” (40) and her single status, and a rocky relationship with her much younger girlfriend who callously suggests Brodie “scrap this one and try again” in regards to her pregnancy. As a linguist, contemplating a speechless child is difficult for Brodie, whose thoughts on the importance of language are explored through her interactions with an ageing woman who is one of the last native speakers of a rare, dying language, and, curiously, with a gorilla at the local zoo who is said to be able to “speak” — that is, able to recognize a miscellaneous collection of 13 words.
It’s a script with a lot of thought-provoking questions and some truly touching scenes; some happy, some heartbreaking, some contemplative. That said, somehow it doesn’t all add up — in this case, the sum is lesser than the parts. For all the brilliant moments, the end result is underwhelming. The scope is a little too large, and the true direction of the play isn’t obvious until at least halfway through. Some of the stories — the older woman who speaks the dying language, Brodie’s younger girlfriend, even the gorilla — fade out unexpectedly, many questions left unanswered. This is almost certainly done intentionally, and definitely leaves you with much to discuss with whoever was sitting beside you, but it is too unresolved, and a little too uneven.
In terms of logistics, Gadfly Theatre Productions makes good use of the simple but ample space at the People’s Center Theater. A simple set is easily manipulated to create distinct spaces: a university office, a zoo enclosure, a doctor’s office, and an x-ray room all appear distinctly. Unfortunately, the set changes were a bit too frequent, though, and it is unclear why two tables couldn’t be used, instead of moving the one table from stage left to stage right every few minutes.
These faults are maddening, because if the sum is lesser than the parts, it’s a shame, because the “parts” really are great. Particularly noteworthy is the cast. Sondra Glynn as Brodie mumbled a couple of lines, but was otherwise a powerful lead, with a wonderfully expressive face and a strong physical presence. Her two castmates, Alana LaBissoniere and Joann Oudekerk each played multiple characters, slipping easily from one personality to the next with simple costume adjustments and impressive variations in stance, voice, and facial expression. LaBissoniere‘s performance as the ape was particularly compelling; no monkey mask or fur suit required to make it obvious that she was not a human. Oudekerk, on the other hand, gave an entertainingly manic performance as crowds of zoo-goers all at once, but was equally convincing as Brodie’s cocky girlfriend, an incompetent young medical professional, and a stressed-out caregiver.
With Precious Little, Gadfly Theatre Productions continues to fulfill its goal of being “an inclusive queer and feminist theatre company” that seeks to give a platform for marginalized voices. I love this about them; I love that their cast covers a variety of racial groups, body shapes and sizes, age groups, gender identities, sexual orientations, etc. It makes the play relatable to a wider audience, and tells stories that are unique — a change from the mainstream. Precious Little is directed and performed well; it’s just a little too much material for a 90-minute production.
Precious Little by Madeleine George, produced by Gadfly Theatre Productions. March 21-30, 2014 at the People’s Center Theater, 425 20th Ave S, Minneapolis. Tickets $12-27 sliding scale (pay-what-you-can performances Monday, March 24 and Sunday, March 30) at http://www.gadflytheatre.org/tickets.html or purchase by cheque/cash at the door.