THEATRE ‌ Waiting for the Rain 

One woman skillfully embodies 24 characters in The Syringa Tree

click to enlarge The Syringa Tree shines a light on South Africas dark apartheid era
  • The Syringa Tree shines a light on South Africas dark apartheid era

The Syringa Tree
Atlanta's Horizon Theatre
Presented by Charleston Stage
Running Jan. 31-Feb. 3, Feb. 8-10 at 8 p.m.Feb. 4 at 3 p.m.$25, $23/seniors, $15/students and children
Dock Street Theatre1
35 Church St.

In a theatre not known for economizing on sets or cast numbers, The Syringa Tree makes for a refreshing change. Actress Carolyn Cook tells a simple tale that touches on complex issues of race and identity, building an intimate portrayal of the Grace family, their servants, and neighbors in '60s South Africa. In the process she gives the production an intimate feel, despite the fact that she's performing in a 240-seat theatre.

An effective, unchanging set suggests a drought-ridden patch of Johannesburg, with a swing for six-year-old Elizabeth Grace. A lot of Syringa's action is seen though Elizabeth's eyes; Cook captures her innocence, which contrasts deeply with a deceitful adult world dominated by harsh apartheid laws. Elizabeth's Jewish father Isaac bends those laws, allowing his maid Salamina to keep her child overnight at his home. This contravenes the National Party's "White by Night" regulation, where black children are not allowed to stay with their parents in white areas after nightfall.

Isaac, Salamina, and her daughter Moliseng are played by Cook with no props or costume changes, as are 23 other characters in an astounding parade of acting prowess. All of the Afrikaner, English, Zulu, and Xhosa characters have distinct, instantly recognizable voices and mannerisms. Many have a particular trademark gesture. Isaac, the wise local doctor, stuffs his hands in his pockets; his wife Eugenie anxiously twiddles with her pearl earring; Mabalel, the skeleton hanging in Isaac's office, grimaces and dangles its arms. Salamina puts her hands on her hips and dances with the same rhythm and liveliness that runs through the play's dialogue and all of Cook's movements.

The events of Syringa are inspired by writer Pamela Gien's own childhood memories. The play is energized by Elizabeth's attitude to the events around her -- she's rarely still, jigging around the stage, sometimes addressing the audience and telling them stories, at others looking up at the adult members of her family that Cook then proceeds to portray. It's never confusing and often a joy to see the actress spin around and become someone new.

As the play progresses, we witness flashpoints in Elizabeth's young life -- the birth and subsequent disappearance of Moliseng, an attack on Granny and Grandpa Grace by a member of the anti-apartheid Liberation Movement, and the poignant fate of her beloved friends and family. Songs, dancing, and dialects add subtle glimpses of South African culture and help to open out the play and give it a sense of narrative unity.

Since Elizabeth's the main character in the play, it's lucky for us that director Lisa Adler restrains any potentially annoying little-girl traits. Adler also ensures that the show never gets sentimental, even at a conclusion that's full of reunions and wistful remembrance. Most of the time, Horizon Theatre's busy lighting plot helps to suggest shifts in time and location. Only a few swift changes in mood and color seem unnecessarily distracting, as when Cook skips from her doorway to her bed and back again. Along with the lighting scheme, Horizon Theatre provide sound effects that include barking police dogs, aircraft, and insistent drumbeats.

By telling a story of segregation in South Africa, Cook and Adler hope to create fresh entryways into a conversation about racism closer to home. Even if the setting of this play is too far removed for that to happen, it reinforces the importance of family and the incommutability of the human spirit in this rare example of Charleston Stage bringing in another company to do a show. If they're all going to be as strong as this one, then it's an experiment that's worth repeating.


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