Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Pam Gien’s “The Syringa Tree” is here for less than two weeks. To catch actress Gin Hammond’s transcendent performance, you need to put down this newspaper — after reading this review, of course — and buy some tickets.

It’s rare that a show earns cultural-imperative status, but Studio Theatre’s production of “The Syringa Tree,” directed with subtle humanity by J.R. Sullivan, arouses both accolades and a sense of urgency. Miss Hammond’s solo performance — playing more than 20 characters of various ages, genders and ethnicities — is miraculous. She slips into the roles so seamlessly and with such delighted curiosity and appetite that the stage seems bursting with multiple personalities rather than the reality, which is one slender woman in an earth-colored shift, conjuring the universe of her childhood with her hands, the postures of her body and her supple voice.

Miss Gien based “The Syringa Tree” on her upbringing in Johannesburg as the privileged English daughter of a doctor. The story opens in 1963 and ends in contemporary times, spanning the years when the Afrikaner National Party ran the government and harshly enforced the laws of apartheid.

Even though Elizabeth (Miss Hammond) lives a sheltered and pampered life, she has not been shielded. Even as a tiny girl, she knows the dangers of being caught without the official papers that allow blacks to work in the “white” areas of Johannesburg.

Among the rope-skipping rhymes and native songs of her childhood, Elizabeth’s repertoire also includes the refrain “Hide away, hide away; you’ve got no papers,” which she learned from her beloved nanny, Salomena.

The wildly inquisitive and aware Elizabeth and her family travel among three worlds — their “English” world, a term that rankles them because generations of the clan were born in South Africa and consider it their homeland; the Afrikaner world of their neighbors, one of suspicion, racism and mob rule; and the world of the servants from the township of Soweto, who live in fear, dignity and grace.

Elizabeth’s sensibility is particularly informed by her time spent with Salomena, a Xhosa woman who gives her the affectionate nickname of “Monkey.” Through her time with Salomena and her adoring toddler, Molly, Elizabeth learns about the spiritual, natural and folkloric realms of South Africa. She also undergoes the political and personal realities of apartheid and the everyday risks and inequities that shape both Elizabeth and Molly into the people they were destined to be.

Although the apartheid era was hardly a fairy tale, there is an enchanting, sing-song quality to Elizabeth’s early years, mostly because of Salomena’s influence and that of the other servants. Through them, Elizabeth learns to experience her beloved South Africa through all of her senses, especially smell.

Watching Salomena sniff her baby teaches Elizabeth to savor her homeland through the scent of mud after the rain, the lavender bushes at her grandfather’s farm, the blossoms and berries on the syringa trees.

There is tragedy as well, when this virtuoso production builds to a staggering climax as the cost of societal change hits home. Yet again, Salomena’s wisdom permeates even the darkest moments, as Elizabeth opens up all of her senses to the fullness and pain of Molly’s fate in the play’s redemptive finale.

The play is a one-woman show and portrays a small universe, but there is something operatic and epic in scale about “The Syringa Tree.” Perhaps it is the generosity inherent in Miss Gien’s writing, the open-armed passion of her engrossing stories. This, combined with Miss Hammond’s silken, truthful portrayals of the myriad characters, makes “The Syringa Tree” a singular theatrical experience.


WHAT: “The Syringa Tree” by Pam Gien

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P Street NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 29.

TICKETS: $25 to $45

PHONE: 202/332-3300


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