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A CurtainUp Review
The Syringa Tree

The Syringa Tree With a New Star by Adrienne Onofri

Since September 11, it has appeared all but impossible for entertainment writers to resist relating whatever it is they're covering - even Britney Spears! - to the terrorism tragedy. I'd like to break the mold. However, this is my first review since the Day of Infamy and the play I'm reviewing, The Syringa Tree (which I'd originally planned to see on September 12), actually presents an interesting dichotomy when viewed in a post-911 context. On the one hand, this story about life under South African apartheid is a worthwhile reminder to those blinded by grief or rage that there have always been life-and-death struggles over tolerance and liberty. On the other hand, plays about such events can seem somewhat dated - like, "Why are we dwelling on this problem that's been 'solved' with the current crisis on our hands?"

Kate Blumberg had been starring in the play for just over a month when the play was forced to go on a six-week hiatus after September 11. She had taken over as the sole cast member from Pamela Gien, who created the show and won Obie, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her performance and writing. Blumberg is an NYU alum, Atlantic Theater Company veteran and native of Cape Town, South Africa.

I must admit that I did not find The Syringa Tree quite as mesmerizing as Barbara K. Mehlman did when she reviewed the production with Gien (see below). I had a few momentary lapses in attention while watching the play, although I'm not sure they were due to the show itself or to my mind wandering to recent horrendous events. Blumberg certainly wasn't at fault. The challenge of performing The Syringa Tree is not only portraying a multitude of characters of varying ages, races and ethnicities but switching quickly among them. The excellent lighting also helps establish the mood and setting as scenes change.

Unlike many other one-person shows, this is not a series of monologues. Some of it is dialogue, and Blumberg has to portray all the participants in a conversation. She does an excellent job of using her posture and body language, along with accents and intonations to convey personalities ranging from a humorless middle-aged Afrikaaner man to a concerned matriarch of British descent to a naive black toddler and her beleaguered mother, a servant.

Perhaps the most impressive transformation occurs when Lizzie, the prime "narrator" of the story, grows up. For much of the play, Lizzie is six years old; when the action jumps ahead to her college and adult years, Blumberg -- without altering her clothes or hair at all -- instantly exudes a mature demeanor. It may not be till then that you appreciate how well she has embodied this little girl, and recognize that it's not just the squeaky voice but also more nuanced facial expressions and gestures that made her childlike.

The script is a bit underdeveloped when it comes to Lizzie's adulthood. Some information that would be of interest is not provided, such as the circumstances under which she moved to the U.S. or whether her husband shares her commitment to social justice. Another thing I found lacking in the play is any exceptionally novel insight into life under apartheid. We've got the perilous attempts to elude authorities and racists, the township and campus uprisings, the bond between some blacks and whites that transcends - and shows the folly of - an official state policy of segregation...but these stories have been told before. That doesn't mean they're not worth telling again; it does mean this is not a groundbreaking history lesson.

Of course, Pamela Gien probably didn't intendThe Syringa Tree as a lesson so much as a human interest piece; that's why her play is full of everyday people, not politicians or journalists, and the only historical note in the program explains that the play begins in 1963, "the early days of apartheid". The emotional impact may be diminished, however, if you've already heard of similar plights. Still, this remains a solid drama with intriguing work demanded of its star.

Editor's Note: The production notes of the original September 2000 review below have been updated. The performance schedule applies to the current run.

---Our Original Review by Barbara K. Mehlman

There is a fragrant Syringa tree in Lizzie's front yard. On the swing, which hangs from its wide, protective branches, sits the precocious and privileged six-year-old who watches, with confusion and innocence, the events of 1960s South Africa.

The story that Lizzie tells draws you in and involves you to the point where you are certain you know the people, feel their terror and smell that Syringa tree. But the fact is: this is a one-woman show! That exclamation point barely conveys the extraordinary piece of drama that takes place in this out-of-the-way theatre. The stage seems so crowded with children, parents, grandparents, neighbors, servants and police, but the only person present is the actress and writer, Pamela Gien.

Lizzie's mother, Eugenie, a sensitive and competent matriarch, manages their large household, staffed with many black servants who often must climb up into the tree to hide from the relentless stalking of the local police. Late at night, the officers come unannounced to the house, their searchlights terrifying the little girl.

Isaac, Lizzie's father, is a "Jewish atheist" doctor who has his white and black patients sit together in the same waiting room. He always manages to have work to do when the smell of trouble is in the air, and at this moment, Lizzie's nanny, Salamina, is the cause of trouble.

Salamina has given birth to Moliseng, a child for whom she has "no papers." Unrelieved anxiety pervades the household, all worrying that the police will come and take the little girl away. To prevent this, the whole family colludes to keep her existence a secret.

At one point, Moliseng becomes ill and must be brought to the hospital in Soweto, but somehow she gets "lost" in the great maw of South African bureaucracy and no one knows where she is. Salamina is inconsolable and keens in pain at the loss of her baby. Only through the dangerous efforts of Eugenie is the Moliseng finally found.

We follow Lizzie for 20 years as South Africa abolishes apartheid, transcends its violence, and gives the black population voting rights. With her, we take a gut-wrenching journey. We witness the visits of the frightening and bigoted Afrikaaner neighbors, the senseless murder of Lizzie's grandfather, the disappearance of her beloved Salamina, Moliseng's political activism.

We follow Lizzie's defection to the "land of the free and the brave" where she marries and has child, and is lured back to the country of her birth for a reunion. The meeting is filled with "This Is Your Life" moments, and the potential for maudlin sentimentality is great, Larry Moss' understated direction prevents that from happening.

Pamela Gien and the characters she portrays draw you in and involve you to the point where you are certain you know them, feel their terror and smell that Syringa tree.

Using English, Afrikaans and Zulu accents, and material from her own life, Gien gives us an up-close-and-personal view of what life was like in South Africa in the 1960s. Her performance will tear your heart out and send you reaching for your tissues. The Syringa Tree packs a punch rarely felt in the theatre today. Don't miss it.

Written by Pamela Gien
Directed by Larry Moss
Originally performed by Pamely Gien, currently starring Kate Blumberg
Set Design: Kenneth Foy
Costume Design: Bobby Pearce
Lighting Design: Jason Kantrowitz
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Playhouse 91, 316 E. 91 St., (1st /2nd Ave) 307-4100
Tues-Sat 8pm, Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm
Opened September 14, 2000 and originally reviewed based on September12, 2000 performance
Re-reviewed with Kate Blumberg based on October 24, 2001 performance
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