In Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre’s “Precious Little,” a lyrical dark comedy from Madeleine George, the playwright and producers weave three narrative strands. In one, Brodie (Sabrina Lynn Gore), a linguist with an infectious passion for endangered dialects, discovers Cleva (Carol Sussman), one of the last known speakers of a Russo-European language, and works to record her vocabulary for posterity.
In the second thread, Brodie, a 42-year-old lesbian, is trying to conceive a child through artificial insemination, and complications ensue. In the third, a gorilla at the local zoo (Sussman) has become a local attraction for its apparent ability to understand a limited lexicon of English words, and the primate exerts a surprising hold over Brodie.
Though Gore’s protagonist is central to the entire tapestry, and themes of infant mortality and the entrancing pull of communication overlap between the stitches, it’s a lot for a 90-minute, single-act play. There’s enough intellectual heft to sustain three separate plays, especially since George doesn’t linger on the individual strands for very long. Like too many contemporary American playwrights, she writes like a screenwriter, “cutting” away from scenes just as momentum begins to build.
This places increased pressure on the actors and designers to maintain a flow, but some of Thinking Cap’s stylistic choices work against the play. The scene transitions, in which the actors move the sparse furnishings, feel labored, and the music that accompanies them has the somnambulant quality of a lullaby. In a nicely acted scene in which Brodie undergoes an unltrasound, this intrusive score lingers on the soundtrack for the entire sequence, in just the sort of syrupy manipulation that, in the past, this theatre has studiously avoided.
Indeed, if this production has an Achilles’ heel, it’s the sound design. The actors wear microphones, unusual for a play in such an intimate theater. Not only was one of the mikes faulty on opening night, but the amplification created an unnecessary distancing effect between the audience and actors.
In short, this show needed more time, I suspect, than the one preview performance before last Friday’s opening night, but director Nicole Stodard cast it with care and imagination. Stephon Duncan embodies four characters—plus an unspecified gaggle of zoogoers—investing each with singular physicality and personality, from a flustered and inexperienced young clinician, to Brodie’s affectionate grad-student girlfriend, to Cleva’s protective, passive-aggressive daughter.
Sussman is a sheer delight, both as Cleva, whose enunciation of an invented lexicon seems to transform her character, and us, before our eyes, and as “The Ape.” George’s casting notes specify that “the Ape does not wear a suit,” and even for verisimilitude, you won’t miss one. Walking with an osteoporotic gait, her arms swinging like pendulums near her feet, her face a shifting emotional canvas of amusement, confusion and agitation, she takes the foundation of an acting-class exercise—now become an ape!—and elevates it to poetry.
As such, this “Precious Little” is at its best when it’s a zoo story. The Ape, perfectly aware of the commands tossed at it from a series of push-button prompts with all the sophistication of a Simon Says game, chooses to ignore them. But it forms a bond with Brodie, whose initial resistance to the patronizing concept of a “talking ape” melts into a mutual affection. Gore clings to the edge of its enclosure and apes (sorry) Sussman’s movements, exchanging mirror neurons like mother and child. All the while, Duncan’s inspired chorus of visitors—impatient children, cynical teenagers, squabbling families—floats over the action in an indiscriminate din.
These scenes function on twin cylinders, the ridiculous and the sublime cohabitating. There may be too much noise in this production—and the play itself—but this, at least, is the sound of theatre at its most resonant.
“Precious Little” runs through May 26 at Thinking Cap Theatre, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $40, or $20 for students 25 and under. Call 954/610-7263 or visit vanguardarts.org.