The best play running on any Dallas stage right now is Precious Little, currently on at the Bath House Cultural Center. The best actor on any Dallas stage right now is in it — Sherry Jo Ward. In the production of Madeleine George’s strange, brief, beautiful play, directed with gentle rhythms and bursts of passion by Kelsey Leigh Ervi, Echo Theatre establishes itself, once again, as the premier local company presenting work by and about women.
Ward plays Brodie, a 42-year-old lesbian academic involved romantically with a young grad student (Molly Welch, playing a dozen other roles, too). Brodie’s field is linguistics, studying dying languages. She’s found possibly the last speaker of “Kari,” a regional Slavic tongue (created by the playwright), and is paying the old lady (Lisa Fairchild, also playing many characters) to record lists of words. When the words trigger disturbing memories in the “informant,” Brodie clashes with the woman’s controlling daughter (Welch).
That hardly begins to describe the many overlapping stories that warp and weave together in Precious Little, a terrifically smart play that lasts a mere 80 minutes but leaves lots to think about for hours after.
As a word person, Brodie finds it hard to speak about her own personal dilemma. She’s pregnant and though she has a full medical history on the anonymous sperm donor, she’s undergoing amnio to be sure there are no problems. But there are. A “genetic mix-up” means her baby might have serious birth defects. She can’t mother a disabled child, she says. Or can she?
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A gorilla might have some answers. A parallel storyline finds a female gorilla at the zoo who has been taught 30 words and can follow simple commands such as “throw celery” and “jump.” Zoo visitors, including Brodie and her lover, push buttons that activate a recorded voice inside the gorilla’s enclosure. It baffles scientist Brodie. “We spend lots of money trying to teach apes to speak when human languages are perishing all the time,” she says.
The animal, played by Fairchild using slow, heavy gestures to convey her gorillaness, is tormented by the constant noise of zoogoers pushing those buttons. She defiantly ignores the voices and only reacts when people rudely toss popcorn at her.
This gem of a play intertwines the complex themes about language and understanding, between humans and between us and our nearest genetic relatives, into graceful spirals. Welch and Fairchild slip seamlessly in and out of various personae using vocal shifts and subtle silhouette changes, sometimes pulling down a ponytail or putting on a different blouse, all done with split-second timing. Meanwhile, Ward, playing only one role, goes deep into Brodie’s turbulent emotions without ever letting the acting show. She’s funny, sad, sexy, powerful, powerless, puzzled and, ultimately, peaceful. This play about words ends with a silent tableau of the three women center stage. It’s an image that, in the context of this magical piece of small theater, speaks volumes.
Precious Little continues through June 20 at Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive (at Northcliff). Tickets $20-$30 at 214-904-0500 or echotheatre.org.