The Syringa Tree
Elizabeth Gray is six years old, and she approaches everything around her in a state of wonder. Yet she is puzzled about why, as one of the adults around her puts it, "some things are allowed and some things aren't." Elizabeth's struggle to find out why things are the way they are, and to set them right, is at the heart of The Syringa Tree.
Pamela Gien, who wrote this one-woman play (and performed it to great acclaim in New York), based it in part on her life growing up in South Africa during the 1960s. She gives a clear picture of what life was like during the height of Apartheid, and shows how a land of great beauty could sometimes produce a life of great horror.
Yet at the Arden Theatre, in the hands of actress Catharine K. Slusar, The Syringa Tree is fascinating but, strangely, not compelling.
Gien's script does not have much plot exposition. Little by little, details pop out about the life of young Lizzie Gray. We learn that her mother Eugenie is a prim and proper Afrikaner who rules her servants with a strict hand. And we learn that Lizzie's father Isaac is a doctor who always seems to be busy delivering babies – including Moliseng, the daughter of their beloved black servant Salamina.
Lizzie accepts the apartheid laws because, like any child, it's the only way of life she knows. It soon becomes clear that Lizzie and her parents care about black people more than is deemed acceptable in white society. Lizzie reacts with panic when the police threaten her father for allowing blacks and whites to share the same consulting room. She also fears her parents will be detained by the police for not having "papers" – not knowing that this is something whites do not need to worry about. (Her worrying never seems ridiculous or comic, just a normal anxiety that a young girl would have.)
When baby Moliseng is hospitalized, then somehow disappears in the hospital, Lizzie and her parents spring into action, doing everything they can to rescue the child from an uncaring, faceless bureaucracy. (Moliseng is eventually found, but the play never tells us how; that portion of the tale never reaches a satisfying conclusion.)
Lizzie longs for a free life. Yet after witnessing too many injustices, and seeing even members of her own family fall victim to sectarian violence, she comes to realize that real freedom will never be possible in that society, and longs for an escape to "the land of the free" - America.
The Syringa Tree is a play that demands a versatile actress, and Catharine K. Slusar rises to the occasion. She plays a total of 24 characters, and she invests them with a variety of convincing accents and characterization. For this alone, it's clear that the time Slusar and her director/husband Whit MacLaughlin spent in South Africa last year was time well spent.
Yet, as Slusar plays her, Lizzie seems much too solemn a six-year-old. She's hyperactive, yet somehow joyless – so joyless that the few comedic intervals don't pay off (for instance, when Lizzie is forced to take ballet classes, she responds several times by "blowing a raspberry," but with Slusar it never gets a laugh).
Slusar spends much of the play frantically rushing around the bare, oval stage. It's a convincing depiction of the whirlwind of thoughts that go through a six-year-old's mind, but it also makes it hard to figure out what's going on at times. Scenes do not have a clear beginning and ending, and it can take a lot of concentration to figure out what's going on in the plot and what the characters' names are.
The whirlwind pace also makes it hard to sympathize with Lizzie, especially since most of the time she's little more than an observer. She has no insights into why Apartheid was so horrible, other than to say she didn't like seeing her friends and family mistreated. The play tells us nothing about the repressive, dehumanizing effects of Apartheid that have not been told better in other dramatizations of life in that era.
In the hands of Gien, Slusar and MacLaughlin, Lizzie never turns into someone we can root for, just someone who is, well, there, telling us a story. At one point Lizzie likens herself to her favorite movie character, Pollyanna; if only she were that plucky and loveable, this could have been an inspirational story. Instead, it ends up more like a rote examination of man's inhumane treatment of his fellow man, combined with a kid's moping about how grownups just don't understand.
Slusar's characterizations are wide-ranging, but not as deep as they could be. As a result, the story never feels completely satisfying, and never transcends its South African roots to feel like a stirring, universal story.
At the end of The Syringa Tree, the action skips several decades to the present day, and there is a satisfying ending both for Lizzie and for a reborn South Africa. Yet, while Lizzie and her homeland have been transformed, you may not feel yourself greatly changed by seeing her story.
The Syringa Tree runs through Sunday, March 13. Ticket prices range from $24 to $40 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, in person at 40 North 2nd Street in Philadelphia or online at www.ardentheatre.org.
Written by Pamela Gien. Directed by Whit MacLaughlin. Scenic Designer: Matt Saunders. Costume Designer: Alison Roberts. Lighting Designer: AC Hickox. Sound Designer: Jorge Cousineau. Stage Manager: Thomas E. Shotkin.
Featuring Catharine Slusar in all 24 roles.
Photos: Mark Garvin