Precious Little

This very smart play presents a conundrum of ideas and feelings which, happily, it refuses to sort out in any complete or resolved way. Part of playwright Madeleine George’s point is to suggest that even when we think we’ve got it all figured out, life becomes more ambiguous and ambivalent for reasons far out of our control. The protagonist here is Brodie (Kelly McAndrew), a lesbian linguist. After many years working in obscure language communities out in the field, she’s achieved tenure at her university. The obvious next step for a woman of her generation and means is to have a baby. With characteristic deliberateness, she finds a suitable sperm donor and becomes pregnant.

One of the play’s many pleasures is that Brodie is an independent woman completely capable of being on her own, who’s decided to have a child because she wants to, not because she thinks she has to for her life to be meaningful or complete. The play opens with Brodie speaking with an obsequious, condescending young birth technology counselor (played by Theo Allyn, virtuosic in multiple roles), who tries to prepare her for the results of her upcoming amniocentesis.

Brodie is over 40, and knows that her age means that her pregnancy could go awry in myriad ways. But the jolt in her life’s narrative comes when the test does indeed show a potential abnormality, and Brodie responds with uncharacteristic uncertainty about which path to choose. Should she abort the baby or carry it to term, gambling on the possibility that her daughter (she knows its sex because the inept counselor accidentally slips and tells her) will be, as she imagines, “broken”?

George isn’t sanguine about a middle-age lesbian’s life choices. But at the same time, she suggests that for strong, sure women who’ve spent their lives making good decisions, it’s still possible to be surprised and unprepared when a curve ball comes flying at you. In fact, one of the play’s many ruminations centers on the unpredictability of our lives, regardless how intelligent, controlled, and well-meant our plans.

Brodie is a linguistic anthropologist, whose interest in language doesn’t necessarily guarantee that she’s an excellent communicator. For each of the play’s multiple characters, the ability to access language provides the key to a deeper level of feeling.

The play opens with a caged gorilla living with great equanimity behind her bars, speaking her inner thoughts in short, declarative sentences. Played with simple, suggestive physicality by Laurie Klatscher, the animal is fully present to her environment, noticing the angle and quantity of light has it floods her home and the smell of the air on her fur. The animal describes her own activities in the present tense, luxuriating in the pleasure of cataloguing her life as it happens.

A parade of visitors roam past what Brodie and her graduate student, Rhiannon (Allyn), call the animal’s “enclosure” instead of its “cage,” using politically correct language to mask the fact of the ape’s captivity, just as we all use euphemisms to soften the sting of difficult realities.

Allyn also plays a collection of people called “the zoo goers,” who stand outside the ape’s cage looking in, their words and responses blurring into one another much the way the animal might hear them. As George writes their stream-of-consciousness impressions, it’s evident that most people just want to consume their superficial experience of the animal, rather than really trying to connect with it meaningfully before they move on to the next exhibit. They barely notice her soulful presence before they’re begging to see the giraffes.

Dragged to the zoo against her will because Rhiannon, her young graduate student lover, wants to do something other than have furtive sex in her office, Brodie does in fact connect with the ape. Although the animal supposedly has 30 or so words at her disposal, their appeal to one another is mostly mute. Brodie understands something of the animal’s presentness, her ability to simply be in the moment in ways that Brodie’s life precludes.

The animal becomes a kind of ego ideal, as Brodie comes to realize that she, too, will have to be staunchly in her life instead of second-guessing whatever choice she makes.As Dorothy (Klatscher), an older, wiser counselor at the birth clinic suggests as Brody debates her baby’s fate, she’ll make a decision and then she’ll live in it, regardless of how her life changes.

One of Brodie’s research informants is Cleva (Klatscher, poignant in the third of her multiple roles), a woman who speaks the dying Slavic language Brodie studies. When Cleva emigrated to the States, she adopted English to separate herself from a politically violent past. As she works with Brodie, who gives her words to record in the university’s sound booth, Cleva reconnects to her history through her original tongue and seems to slip from the present, which irritates her emotionally parsimonious daughter no end.

For Cleva, language is a gift, even though it describes a traumatic past. For the ape, language allows her to describe and revel in her local environment, however compromised. Brodie’s challenge is to figure out how to use language to capture a future she can’t quite imagine. When, in the play’s final moment, the ape grips Brodie in a fervent embrace, Brodie’s great relief seems to be the solace she derives from simply being in that moment without the necessity that it be resolved or vocalized.

The play is beautifully directed by Tracy Brigden, who moves the three actors around a simple, evocative set through vignettes of Brodie’s emotional and philosophical quandary, accumulating anaffective nuance as the play goes forward. Each of the performers offer precise, carefully drawn portraits of the women whose lives intersect with Brodie’s. McAndrew presents a straightforward, likable Brodie, whose existential debate proceeds along a steady trajectory.

Precious Little isn’t interested in a voyeuristic study of the emotional angst of a difficult, life-altering decision, but instead, presents a character for whom deciding whether or not to continue a pregnancy provides an opportunity for useful growth. To see a woman academic onstage who’s not punished for her intelligence by a fatal disease (see Wit and even the recent The How and the Why), and who isn’t belittled or presented as somehow castrating, makes Precious Little a notable contribution to dramatic literature in which female professors are more routinely made to suffer for their competencies.

It’s also refreshing to see a play in which a lesbian isn’t eager to form a conventional domestic couple. Brodie enjoys Rhiannon, but when the younger woman’s opinion about Brodie’s pregnancy sounds too glib and thoughtless, Brodie doesn’t hesitate to end the relationship.

At the same time, Rhiannon is clear about the pitfalls of sleeping with a professor, anticipating the day when Brodie will not so subtly pass her off to a colleague and withdraw her support. Separating the personal from the professional, George suggests, is impossible, since women who’ve achieved the success Brodie boasts often find their emotional support and sexual pleasure among those with whom they connect intellectually.

Brigden and the actors capture this dynamic nicely. It’s clear that although she’s guarded about their relationship, Rhiannon has real affection for her professor, while Brodie is just a bit too distracted to really notice the young woman’s attentions. We’re not invited to witness the formation of a couple, but to observe how even the most intimate relationships develop through a series of hits and misses, through sentences that sometimes don’t really finish the thought they mean to convey. When Brodie breaks off their affair, she says vaguely that “this isn’t working out.” Rhiannon knowingly retorts that it’d be kinder, in the long run, for Brodie to say exactly what she means.

But in Precious Little, even the most precise language can’t quite convey anything with real certainty because in the end, life’s just not that simple. Living in it, with all its immutable contradictions and confusions, with magnanimity and generosity, might be the best we can do.

The Feminist Spectator

Precious Little, City Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA, April 3, 2011.

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