Sunday, May 25, 2003

Captivating 'Syringa' does what good drama should do

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Syringa Tree does what theater is supposed to do: It transports you.

Playwright Pamela Gien's 2001 Obie Award winner is a fictionalized memoir, 100 minutes of vivid storytelling filled with sights, smells, sounds, songs, laughter and loss that tell us more than any textbook or travelogue about what it was like to grow up in South Africa under apartheid.

Syringa Tree is in its regional premiere at Playhouse in the Park through June 15. It closes the Shelterhouse season.

The tree in question grows in the back yard of Lizzie, who is a precocious 6 when we meet her. Like all small children, Lizzie absorbs more than the adults around her ever could guess.

She knows about the mysterious and all-important "Paper" that people have to have to be safe from the police. She knows about the men who occasionally hide in her tree's branches.

From her bedroom window, she witnesses beatings. She knows how, when people die, their spirits return to the tree, to live in its bark and in its leaves.

Lizzie and her entire extended family - Brits, blacks and Afrikaners, young and old, male and female - are all embodied by one actress. Stephanie Cozart and Shannon Koob alternate in the role, which is the theatrical equivalent of a marathon.

Koob earned a well-deserved standing ovation for her opening night performance on Thursday. As she tells Gien's story, she becomes more than 20 characters. Her body shifts, her voice finds exactly the right identifying dialect and pitch.

Solo shows can be a special challenge, particularly when the play demands that a cast of characters interact with each other. Under Michael Haney's firm but liberating direction, Koob is a spirit free to roam a place of memory and mystery.

Even loving parents can't shield Lizzie from fear. She hears and sees too much. She knows that they must hide the baby daughter of her beloved black nursemaid Salamina because the infant doesn't have the "Paper" and she'll be taken away.

The neighboring Afrikaners don't approve of them. Her mother is "the Roman danger" (Roman Catholic), Lizzie's physician father is an atheist Jew, more concerned with doing what is right than following the law. Lizzie fears she'll lose them.

With a child's fearlessness, Koob takes flight on the swing that hangs from the syringa tree - which we never see. Narelle Sissons' evocatively barren and sun-baked set speaks of drought and hopelessness in a place at the end of nowhere (but is actually just beyond Soweto).

The Syringa Tree is also a story of reunion. Give yourself over to Lizzie's adventure, and you won't leave the theater dry-eyed.

The Syringa Tree, through June 15, Playhouse in the Park Shelterhouse, 421-3888.

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