Dallas — What is the Precious Little of the title in Madeleine George’s play, directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi and performed with energy and darkly comic verve by Echo Theatre’s ensemble at the Bath House Cultural Center? The phrase could refer to an unborn baby, a dying language or maybe the difference in the DNA of an aging female gorilla with a 30-word vocabulary and a 42-year-old lesbian linguist screwing her pretty graduate assistant.
Whatever else it might be, Precious Little is a loaded show, with six settings and 10 characters, all played by three women (A, B and C) changing clothes, moving furniture and shifting personae with speed and intensity for 80 intermissionless minutes.
Woman B, aka Brodie (handsome, classy Sherry Jo Ward), is a linguist at the top of her academic game, a woman with a mission to preserve the last remnants of a vanishing language and write about it. She’s 40 and good-looking, with a big office and a desk big enough to get laid on between classes. She also has a fetus growing inside her, the fruit of a carefully selected donor whose medical history she has meticulously researched. When Brodie gets ambiguous results from the genetic testing she signed up for, she’s thrown into a dilemma that tests her previous hardcore rational basis for decision-making.
Enter Woman C (pert, sleek Molly Welch) Brodie’s dark-haired and devoted young lover, ever eager to entertain her prof and sex partner on the spot. Welch’s willing student tosses her long hair back, and stretches her lithe limbs to Brodie’s delight, but the young woman fears tough-minded Brodie might well dump her when the project they’re working on is done.
Welch puts on a medical jacket and becomes a fast-talking, nervously smiling young doctor, trying to assert her own expertise in the presence of no-nonsense Brodie, short-circuiting the novice doctor’s condescending explainations. Later, Welch grabs a ball cap and becomes a strolling crowd of onlookers at the zoo.
Woman A (kindly, low-keyed Lisa Fairchild) is an elderly Slavic immigrant in bandana and crocheted collars; perhaps the last speaker of the Russian-sounding language Brodie is studying. Handily, the professor has discovered this living repository of the word living near her own university and has arranged for the woman’s daughter (Welch again, rouged up a bit, and her voice gone frantic with wariness) to bring her round-eyed mom in for recording sessions.
Brodie is strangely drawn to the local zoo’s slow-moving old gorilla (Fairchild, looking sadly captured in a big shawl and sagging squatting moves). Their glances lock, and some kind of wordless bond takes place between these two primates from different species.
Tall and sporting a short mane of thick, wavy hair, Ward brings a solid dignity and complexity to the role of Brodie, around whom the other players swirl in the fast-moving production. Leaning thoughtfully on a cane, she is the epitome of the wry, witty, skeptical professor, intent on the data and annoyed by sugarcoated responses. She and Welch generate real heat in their sexual encounters. Ward is especially compelling in the ultra-sound scene when her face suddenly takes on an astonished, soft look as she hears the heartbeat and waves to the fetus on the screen, a look she summons when she waves to the captive gorilla. A hand can be an actor on its own, Ward demonstrates.
Brodie examines her options about a possible birth defect, turning to other females, young and old, for something that isn’t quite clear. The fascinating show often feels like a collection of deeply felt improvisations with plot lines braided loosely together. Still, these characters have their moments, and raise some interesting questions about the limits of language—and mime, for that matter.
It all takes place on a smart, spare set designed by Randy Bonifay, featuring a large abstract egg on the back scrim and lines radiating out from the center to the audience edge. Derek Whitener’s easy-on-easy-off costumes quickly suggest the role the actor is assuming, and Kellen Voss’s sound design is suggestive without being intrusive.
George’s intentional ambiguity has struck a chord of creativity in Echo’s ensemble, and their performance keeps you sorting through the emotionally charged, intertwined themes as you leave the theater.