Stephanie Clayman and Jon Vellante in “Beyond Words.”/MAGGIE HALL

‘Beyond Words’ and Alex, the parrot

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‘Beyond Words’ and Alex, the parrot

Stephanie Clayman and Jon Vellante in “Beyond Words.”/MAGGIE HALL

Considering chemistry just numbers and data entry, Brooklyn-born, M.I.T. and Harvard-educated Jewish scientist Irene Pepperberg (currently an adjunct research professor at Boston University) decided early on to make her life’s work the study of animal cognition – especially with regard to parrots.

The remarkable result of her research and laboratory work – chronicled in Laura Maria Censabella’s affecting new play “Beyond Words” – is the unique relationship between Pepperberg and an African gray parrot she named Alex. The world premiere in question – lovingly directed by Cassie Chapados at Central Square Theater – demonstrates both the pioneering contribution of an indefatigable scientist and the real mutual love she shared with her subject.

Censabella traces Pepperberg’s three-decade investigation of Alex – whose name she explains as “Avian Language Experiment” but later adjusts to “Avian Learning Experiment.” Despite a series of formidable obstacles – among them chauvinistic scientists, underfunding, tenure track and full professorship issues, low expectations and dismissal of her work as a circus project – she ultimately proves herself a resilient researcher with the determination of a world-class hurdler. Along the way, audience members learn, she has employed careful protocols and intensive experiments in developing Alex’s knowledge and cognitive capabilities.

What makes “Beyond Words” an especially moving chronicle is Jon Vellante’s ability to bring Alex to vivid life as the parrot learns colors, shapes, numbers and materials – eventually reaching the cognitive level of a five-year-old. Designer Qingan Zhang complements the learning with multi-colored walls and stage floor that include geometric shapes. Costume designer Sandra Zhihan Jia dresses barefoot Vellante as Alex in a properly gray outfit with dark red material at back to represent a kind of tail.

Throughout the two-act play Vellante moves around a white construct on wheels that bears a large surface where Alex responds to experiments involving shapes, colors and materials. At times audience members briefly applaud Alex’s correct identifications. Along the way, Alex learns to count to eight, his vocabulary grows to 150 words, and the insistent parrot repeatedly asks for water, corn, cherry and even kiwi. As Alex becomes famous, Vellante’s sometimes showy Alex briefly dances a vogue for photographers. Theatergoers are likely to warm to the parrot and appreciate his cognitive awakening as much as Pepperberg does in Censabella’s notably empathetic play.

In the strong Central Square Theatre cast, Stephanie Clayman captures all of Pepperberg’s warmth and patience with Alex as well as her tenacity in overcoming setbacks and reversals in her work. Clayman and Vellante have very persuasive moments as the scientist and her subject during experiments. Humor and touching understanding inform a moment when Pepperberg and Alex come very close to each other. Versatile Bill Mootos captures husband Dr. Rick Pepperberg’s mixed feelings about his wife’s efforts and Dr. Howard Towers’ professional slickness especially vis-à-vis Pepperberg herself. Karina Beleno Carney catches colleague Dr. Lourdes Acevedo’s enthusiasm about her work with dolphins and her solidarity with Pepperberg during her professional struggles.

“Beyond Words” is a worthy tribute to Irene Pepperberg’s lifelong dedication to avian accomplishment. Scientists and laymen alike should endorse her transcendent vision after seeing the richly sensory staging. Θ

“Beyond Words” runs through April 14 at the Central Square Theater, Cambridge.

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