A sad babushka, a bad fetus, and a secretive gorilla. Ian Johnston / Annex Theatre

Precious Little, a play written by Madeleine George and directed by Katherine Karaus, has one unambiguous destination: the core of human vocal language. It travels to this point by four means. The first is a research project conducted by a 42-year-old professor, Brodie (Sarah Papineau), who studies dying Eastern European languages. (She also happens to be a lesbian, pregnant, and having an affair with one of her graduate students.) Second is the subject of this research project, Cleva (Mary Murfin Bayley), a babushka who is one of the last remaining speakers of a dying language. Third is a gorilla in a zoo, which was trained by scientists to speak or at least communicate with human beings. Fourth is the thing becoming a language-speaking animal—a human—in the professor's womb.

Support The Stranger

In terms of mood, performance, and pace, Precious Little is on very good legs until, deep in the play, it begins to approach its destination—what the 20th-century German philosopher Heidegger famously called the "house of being" (the sound of human words, the content of human words, and the depth and history of human words). To quote Professor Brodie (from memory): "We spend lots of money trying to teach apes to speak when human languages are perishing all the time." But why is it important to sustain and preserve these endangered languages? The play appears to be leading us to the final answer of this question. We see clues in the fetus's abnormal development (there is the risk of it being born with a mind that's too slow to grasp and perform basic speech functions), the deteriorating mental condition of the babushka the professor is recording (the more and more the old woman remembers of the violent past contained in the dying language, the more and more unstable she becomes), and in the movements of the gorilla the professor visits at the zoo (it seems to know something about language that humans have completely missed).

Ultimately, the play ends without reaching its destination. This failure mirrors Heidegger's failed attempt to reach the heart of being in his incomplete work Sein und Zeit. In that book, we only get to the waiting room of being and never actually enter the door to the core. With Precious Little, we are left in the waiting room of language with a bad fetus, a sad babushka, a research project in disarray, and a gorilla that is hiding some crucial secret. recommended