Pamela Gien is far too assured of her own adorableness to stop and think about what to put in and what to leave out her one-woman stage memoir of girlhood in Johannesburg under the apartheid system. As a result, “The Syringa Tree” is something of a loose and baggy monster-monologue, with Gien prancing around the stage, taking on the voices of everyone who ever crossed her childhood doorstep — neighbors, parents, servants, grandparents, patients of her physician father — over the course of an intermittently affecting but ungainly evening of recollections.
“The Syringa Tree” follows six-year-old Elizabeth through her daily routines, lingering over voices and atmosphere of Johannesburg with lyricism and intimacy. But it lacks the economy that could make the individual glimpses resonate.
One-person shows tend to have their own structural imperative. Often less is more. A single incident conveyed in bold, precise language can stir up a surprising maelstrom of feeling. Gien’s script, although thick with incident and character, never seems to go anywhere. “The Syringa Tree” feels diffuse and overwrought in its aspirations. Its multifarious characters spring to periodic life, but the everything-and-the kitchen sink structure overtaxes the limits of Gien’s dramatic gifts.
Gien portrays her child protagonist with a cloying little lisp and a somewhat affected cuteness; she is the sort of prattling moppet whom one would as soon whack with a blunt instrument as disport with for an intermissionless two hours. As the center of the play’s shifting perspectives, she witnesses the steadfast resistance of ordinary South Africans to a system of institutionalized brutality that controls even the smallest details of their domestic lives.
Raised by her Black African housekeeper, Salamina, “Miss Lizzy” shares her dolls, her secrets, and her home with a young daughter of Salamina’s called Moliseng. When nosy neighbors come calling, the family is forced to pretend that Moliseng is a mere visitor, rather than a regular resident of their Great House. To Elizabeth, though, she is the closest thing to a sister–and Salamina a more formative presence than her own wispy mother.
When Moliseng is taken ill and disappears from a colored children’s ward of the overcrowded local hospital, the family is launched into a crisis from which it never quite recovers, even with the child’s restoration and regained health. Although Salamina fears the worst, Elizabeth and her father, a liberal physician, ride to the rescue of the little girl, and succeed in bringing her back to safety.
This shelter is temporary, however, as acts of random violence come closer to the household, shaking even the humanistic optimism of Lizzie’s implacable father, Dr. Isaac Grace, and claiming the life of her grandfather, a rugged country gentleman who dispenses clothing and necessities to his impoverished black neighbors without charging a fee. In sorrow and defeat, Salamina leaves behind her position, and the bonds between Lizzie and Moliseng dissolve as each goes on to live out her destiny.
Elizabeth’s involves exodus from her land of betrayed promises and return, while Moliseng goes on to be a martyr and a statistic, her young life destroyed by a policeman’s bullet.
Director Larry Moss has coached a long lost of Hollywood notables in groundbreaking roles, among them Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Helen Hunt in As Good As it Gets, and it would be nice to say that Gien’s performance is of this caliber. Certainly, she’s energetic and flexible. Her affection for the material is unquestionable, and her command of South African dialects impressive. Nonetheless, her “Syringa Tree” suffers from an excess of branches. A good pruning could only help to make this tree more shapely.