Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Theatre Works Launches
Also see Richard's review of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
TheatreWorks presents the California premiere of the London and Off-Broadway hit, Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree. It is also the start of a national tour of the insightful drama of South African politics. This is a solo piece featuring Gin Hammond, who plays 15 parts in a powerful piece of theater. She switches between the characters with wonderful agility.
Syringa Tree is told through the voice of a child trying to make sense out of the chaos, magic and darkness of Johannesburg during the 1960s. It follows the story of ties that rise above race and the contrasting fortunes of two children during that turbulent period in South Africa. Syringa Tree opens on a bare stage with an evocative cyclorama of earthy tones that is reminiscent of an African veldt. There is a swing at center stage, and we see the talented Ms. Hammond swinging happily as a six year old child named Elizabeth, called Lizzie. She is a young girl full of life, dancing around the stage talking about and acting out the members of her family and the black servants. She becomes African nanny Salamina and her black friend Mollysan who narrowly escaped an infant death only to become involved in teenage confrontations with the riot police during the Soweto raids. Elizabeth goes from a wide eye child to an adult who finally leaves her homeland. She returns after Apartheid has been destroyed to see a new South Africa.
Pamela Gien's intention is to look at her native country through innocent eyes and avoid the obvious dangers of editorializing and preachiness. She succeeds with the help of actress Gil Hammond. This artist is mesmerizing during the 90 minute, no intermission, solo performance. She surrogates herself into six year old Lizzie and then her hips have somehow widened, her voice deepened as she becomes the girl's adored African nanny Salamina. She moves about the stage skipping, then immediately transforms into her slow-gaited nurse. She uses her lean body with balletic freedom on the large stage.
The Syringa Tree might have been better on a smaller stage since there are times when Hammond's voice is difficult to hear and the South African dialects are hard to follow. When she is on the left side of the stage, it is hard to hear her from the right side of the theater and vice versa. However, this is a wonderful evening of solo theater.
The Syringa Tree continues through November 3rd, and it goes to the Pasadena Playhouse next. This will be followed by a run at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts and A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle.
The next production at TheatreWorks will be Earnest Thompson's On Golden Pond, with two of the Bay Area's favorite veteran actors, Linda Hoy and George Ward. It opens on Saturday December 7 with previews set for December 4-6. For tickets for this production or for The Syringa Tree, call 650-903-6000 to or visit www.theatreworks.org for more information.