Precious Little is a play about language. Written by American playwright Madeleine George and directed by Patricia Wichman for Navi Collaborative, it explores questions surrounding the ways language connects us, but also what other types of communication become necessary when words aren’t enough.
When talented linguist Brodie (Jessi Williams) discovers her sperm donor pregnancy may be affected by a genetic anomaly, her grad-student girlfriend is unsympathetic. As a scientist who usually thrives on having a plan, Brodie finds herself disoriented when her emotions defy her rationalised reasons for terminating. Yet more disconcerting for her is the fact that clarity seems to lie beyond her reach. In the midst of medical jargon and the wranglings of her conscience, the things that make most sense to Brodie are found beyond her own language. Played with zest by Williams, Brodie seems most at home entranced by the endangered syllables of a dying Slavic language, and in soundless communication with a gorilla at the zoo.
The gorilla, played with slow, present grace by Catherine Maunsell (who also features as a senior counsellor and a native speaker of the rare Slavic language), becomes a kind of animal translator for Brodie, whose life and career is dominated by the intricacies of phonemes and lexemes, lexicons, glosses and phonetics, but perhaps lacks contact with instinct and intuition. Brodie appears to find a peaceful quietness in observing the gorilla, with whom she seems to develop her own way of communicating through the glass.
The meaning of language, and its place and significance in our world, is investigated by this play. It contrasts interestingly the fatuous yet benign commentaries of multiple zoo-goers (voiced with dexterity by Courtney Eggleton) with the idea of a more profound cross-species connection being made possible by Brodie’s interactions with the gorilla. An array of supporting roles – from the haplessly over excitable Doctor, to the overprotective daughter of one of Brodie’s language test subjects– are played energetically by Courtney Eggleton.
Precious Little is full of great character connections and versatile performances from Williams and Eggleton, who energetically create the various scenarios that tell the story of the play. Space is limited, but the set provides an engaging aesthetic – covered in vocabulary from different obscure languages, it serves as a pleasing visual gloss to the play’s test of language.
Some controversial ideas are aired by Precious Little, namely a scientist’s fear of having a child suffering from ‘retardation’ and the dilemma she feels in her own surprise at wanting to keep a pregnancy where the odds of a possibly debilitating abnormality are unknown. The script sometimes feels underdeveloped in its handling of different perspectives on this issue, but the production worked hard to create sympathetic. Though the writing leaves questions unanswered, the show itself received a warm response from its audience, who seemed to enjoy its light and darker moments in equal measure.
Precious Little is presented by Navi Collaborative and plays at The Basement until 2 June.