"The Syringa Tree," which opened Friday night in Studio Arena Theatre, is one of the most ingenious, moving and extraordinary pieces of theater you'll ever see.
It has an eyebrow-raising premise -- one woman portrays more than 20 characters in South Africa in 1963, when apartheid brutalized the blacks it oppressed and coarsened the whites it favored.
Shed any doubts. "The Syringa Tree" works masterfully, due to the exceptional quality of the drama and its charmingly adroit and powerfully talented actor, Gin Hammond.
Hammond starts on the bare stage's single prop, a swing hanging from the ceiling, as a gamine child named Elizabeth, a sort of South African Pippi Longstocking. When her pregnant nanny steps into the scene, Hammond shifts posture, voice and bearing so thoroughly that the child vanishes and you now see the new person. It's eerie to see the slender body, clad in a simple shift, now moving like a heavily pregnant woman. When she changes character, Hammond's mobile face, lit up with the expressions of a lively child, instantaneously falls into the planes of concern of an adult whose newborn may be sent to the townships, away from the house in the white area where she cares for Elizabeth.
Hammond portrays, in quick turns, a stuffy Afrikaner neighbor, his bossy, pouting daughter, Elizabeth's cultured and overwhelmed mother and her doting physician father. Hammond's depictions of a toddler and Elizabeth's aged grandparents are among the most impressive, but even the small parts -- a monosyllabic driver comes to mind -- are thoroughly differentiated from the others. The audience leaves the theater feeling as though they have just seen those 20-some characters portrayed on stage by separate actors.
The material Hammond has here is of the same stellar quality as her work.
"The Syringa Tree" -- the name refers to a tree with blooms and berries, under which some of the action happens -- won an OBIE award for off-Broadway's Best Play of 2001.
The play is skillfully crafted, with highly emotional passages that are first alluded to and then realized. The child Elizabeth seems to live in an Eden until she says seriously, "Some things are allowed and some things are not." With a child's understanding, she grasps the wrongness of not having "a pass" or "papers" or being in the wrong place, especially at night. Then she mentions the electric gates that surround her house. The anxiety for this young girl and those she loves begins to build.
Then a beloved child is lost in a township at night. Elizabeth's mother, with her husband absent and her household frantic with dread, feels compelled to help. But the draconian restrictions designed by the government to protect her may endanger her, too.
That loss foreshadows a far more dramatic and shattering loss later. It is unexpected and emotionally wrenching, but feels authentic and almost inevitable.
And young Elizabeth, who frolicked in a swing in the branches of the syringa tree of the title, finds herself emotionally unable to live in a place where so much pain is inflicted to preserve privilege.
The director deserves credit for his deft and evocative use of light, shadows and noises to fill the stage, via our imaginations, with the masterpiece of "The Syringa Tree."
"The Syringa Tree"
4 stars (out of 4)
Drama playing through Jan. 28 in Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St.
For more information call (800) 77-STAGE or visit www.studioarena.org.