Words can either be empty or mean so much. Madeleine George demonstrates this in Precious Little, a gem of a play that couches its characters' hurt in inane chatter and lets the small moments speak volumes.
Offhand exclamations like "great!" and "wonderful!" either work as nervous filler, creating tension, or as a tentative bridge to actual communication. When the trio of actors in Echo Theatre's thoughtful production speak to each other, it's more about their actions than their words.
Please don't misunderstand: George's script is not a throwaway. It's actually a smart collection of small encounters that help paint a bigger picture for the main character, a 40-something linguist named Brodie. She's researching and cataloging a nearly dead language while screwing her graduate assistant and pursuing motherhood through in vitro. These snippets of three major parts of her life present a flawed woman who's as compelling in her humanity as she is distancing with her honesty.
As Brodie, Sherry Jo Ward is curt and direct with those whom she's conversing in a professional setting. When she requests that a perky amnio counselor (Molly Welch) tone down the condescension — she is a scientist too, after all — her no-nonsense approach feels icy (though appropriate). But that frost melts when Brodie hears the heartbeat of her unborn child for the first time. Her reaction is so unexpected and tender, waving awestruck at the monitor, that suddenly we understand this woman.
Ward's open performance is a large part of why Brodie remains so enthralling. During each scene change, when Welch and Lisa Fairchild are sartorially transitioning from one character to the next, Ward is often frozen before the audience, silhouetted in a spotlight so we can see the emotions flicker across her face.
Grounding Brodie like this, and giving the audience a chance to peek beyond her armor, is one of director Kelsey Leigh Ervi's smartest moves. Another is the nearly seamless shifts between scenes, characters, time and emotions. Randy Bonifay's versatile set effortlessly becomes an office, an audio booth, even the zoo with only the repositioning of a table and a few stools.
Derek Whitener's costumes hint at each of the strikingly different personas Welch and Fairchild adopt without ever trying too hard. Ambient noise courtesy of Kellen Voss (and a rockin' playlist of early 2000 radio hits) helps further these transitions.
Did you catch that mention of a zoo? That's because a large part of the action occurs in a female gorilla's enclosure, where bored tourists gawk at the ape and Brodie comes for solace after learning her baby might be born with several disabilities. Instead of seeking out her young fling (Welch) for comfort, Brodie's drawn to this soulful, sad animal (Fairchild, adopting a rolling, lumbering crawl) that can't seem to communicate any better than she can.
These scenes are some of the best in a production that is a string of evocative moments.