The best thing about Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree is the central character who tells most of the story, a six-year-old child named Elizabeth. She's sometimes cute, but she's also smart, bratty and eccentric enough to keep the highly emotional play from becoming overwhelmingly sentimental. It's through Elizabeth's often uncomprehending eyes that we witness the effects of apartheid on a white family and a group of black servants in South Africa during the 1960s.
Based on real events in the playwright's life, The Syringa Tree is an evening-length monologue, with one actress -- Karen Slack, in the Alliance Stage production -- playing not only Elizabeth, but 22 other roles. Elizabeth is brought up in a loving household by Eugenie, her warm and neurotic upper-class mother and a kindly Jewish doctor father. Her primary caretaker is Salamina, the Xhosa family maid. Elizabeth is present during Salamina's pregnancy and witnesses the birth of her daughter, Moliseng. The young Elizabeth promptly falls in love with the new baby.
But because of South Africa's repressive pass laws, which restricted the movement of black Africans, Moliseng must live a life of constant concealment. If she were discovered, she'd be taken from Salamina and sent to a township. Fear and horror lurk at the edges of Elizabeth's protected life. Moliseng disappears and is found again. In a shockingly unexpected development, Elizabeth's humorous and generous-hearted grandfather is murdered on his farm. Salamina leaves the household, apparently guilt-ridden over the murder, although she had nothing to do with it. And finally -- now at university -- Elizabeth discovers that the fourteen-year-old Moliseng has been shot at a demonstration against the apartheid government in Soweto.
The play could be better structured. It has little forward momentum and sometimes feels unshaped, particularly in the interminable final twenty minutes, when a grown-up Elizabeth -- she's left South Africa, married in America and had a child of her own -- returns to her homeland to find Salamina. This stretch is filled with bits of information we don't care about, and other bits -- like the fact that Eugenie is suffering from dementia -- that we do care about but aren't given time to ponder. And even at this late stage, new characters pop up, such as a maid and a stupid, babbling neighbor. When the reunion with Salamina finally comes, the action has been drawn out for so long that it's hard not to feel emotionally manipulated.
The play succeeds on raw emotion, and also on Elizabeth's wonderful dialogue. There's some talk about fairy dust, including a demonstration of how a fairy powders her nose -- "Pop! Pop! Pop!" It's hilarious, and beautifully done by Slack. In another enchanting scene, Elizabeth ponders Eugenie's ultimatum that she can't go to ballet if she doesn't eat her breakfast egg. She stands on the swing seat that's the primary prop for this production (we know that it hangs from the syringa tree of the title) and debates with herself -- "Egg...ballet...egg...ballet" -- looking alternately ecstatic and disgusted. And the description of Elizabeth's relationship with her grandparents melts your heart.
Slack's emotional intensity rivets attention, but not all the characters are convincing. We do get a sense of Eugenie, particularly during the harrowing drive the family takes to the township in search of Moliseng, but Elizabeth's father is represented only by a stoop and a slight deepening of the voice, and Salamina's huge laugh and equally huge lamentations don't quite convince. Elizabeth's voice is pretty high, several other characters speak primarily in the upper registers, and the South African accent is occasionally thick enough to hinder comprehension. I never figured out, for example, what Moliseng swallowed that made her so ill she almost died.
The Syringa Tree won plaudits from New York critics, as well as an Obie award, and this production is worth seeing for the passionate commitment of both playwright and actress. But it also has the slightly ragged and unfinished quality of early work.
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