Monday, July 22, 2024

Jon Vellante and Stephanie Clayman in “Beyond Words” at the Center Square Theater in Cambridge. (Photo: Maggie Hall)

Barefoot on stage, Alex (Jon Vellante) spent the two hours of “Beyond Words” on his toes, moving around the stage with a remarkable likeness to the bird he was portraying. Having a human play a parrot gave surprisingly emotional heft to the latest from Central Square Theater, the story of a scientist and the animal she trained to be able to communicate like a child.

The play centers around Irene Pepperberg (Stephanie Clayman), a researcher who spends 30 years working with an African grey parrot named Alex. It’s based on the true story of the real-life Pepperberg, who has spent 45 years training grey parrots to use English speech referentially and employing this communication code to examine their intelligence. The result? Birds who score at the level of a 6- to 8-year-old child on many of the same cognitive tasks used to test humans.

The play charts Alex’s progress over the course of the nearly 30 years Irene worked with him, from 1978 to 2007. (An African grey can live up to 60 years in captivity, some expert say.) First, he was able to recognize 30 objects, three colors and three shapes, then he understood categories and concepts: He recognized that paper is paper whether it’s an index card or a sheet of loose-leaf. He learned how to discriminate between “same” and “different”: when shown a red leather shoe and a red leather glove, he could say that the “matter” was the same, but the “shape” was different. By 2000, he could sound out letters. 

But really, the play is about Irene and the hardships she faces as a female scientist. Irene fights constantly to be taken seriously, even as she makes advancements in her research. “They scrutinize my data 100 times more than yours,” she says early on to her husband, Rick Pepperberg (Bill Mootos), another scientist. Much of the play focuses on the dynamics of their relationship, and the success that comes more easily to Rick ends up being damning for their marriage; the resulting crumbling of their relationship provides a backdrop for the rest of the action. 

Irene moves from university to university, including a stint at the MIT Media Lab (“Beyond Words” is part of an ongoing collaboration between the institute and Central Square Theater), but never really finds her home. The plight of female scientists the play aims to convey is not understated – “the first scientist to challenge a paradigm always gets the worst of it,” and when that scientist is a woman, the worst is even worse – but playwright Laura Maria Censabella’s interspersing of Irene’s struggles with moments of joy and triumph result in a well-balanced narrative that feels realistic but optimistic.

Clayman’s performance is truly convincing, conveying a real depth of feeling especially in tough moments. Mootos, fresh off a small role in the Oscar-nominated film “The Holdovers,” is also strong, especially as he switched between playing Rick and Howard Towers, another scientist who was especially opposed to Irene’s work. Lourdes Acevedo (Karina Beleno Carney), a female scientist friend studying dolphins, rounds out the main cast, and her performance is impressive as well. With a simple, little-changing, set, director Cassie Chapados lets the story sing for itself, and sing it does.

There were a few things that could’ve been executed better – the revolving door of chorus characters was sometimes hard to keep track of (though Kandyce Whittingham puts on an especially good performance), and the late addition of another parrot named Griffin feels rushed and not fully fleshed out – but overall, this is a job well done. 

The depth of the relationship Irene forms with Alex is never stated explicitly, but by the end, you feel it. “Sometimes you take a leap in life,” Irene says as she ends the play, “and things happen.” 

  • Beyond Words,” by Laura Maria Censabella and directed by Cassie Chapados. Presented by and at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, through April 14.