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Vivid 'Syringa' has few surprises

Pamela Gien's 90-minute memory play has little that's new to say about apartheid.

November 04, 2002|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

"The Syringa Tree," Pamela Gien's one-woman show now at the Pasadena Playhouse, is said to have begun as an exercise in a Los Angeles acting class taught by the show's director, Larry Moss. The exercise involved turning to another student in the class and telling a personal story. Gien summoned up a haunting personal tale from her childhood in South Africa, and the seed of "The Syringa Tree" was planted.

This backstage detail would be of little interest except that it seems relevant in assessing what Gien (and two other actresses, in nightly rotation) is now doing onstage in Pasadena.

"The Syringa Tree," a 90-minute memory play retracing its author's privileged childhood in apartheid-era Johannesburg, comes off as an extended acting exercise that is fitfully successful as such but that never grows into a dramatic story with any momentum or compelling plot line.

The piece could also be described as an overwrought autobiographical essay given a multi-voiced reading by an actress good enough to have appeared onstage at the New York Shakespeare Festival, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Its title an homage to the flora of the African continent that still bellows a siren song to its expatriates, "The Syringa Tree" is a collage of scenes really, fitted together in a rough poetic assemblage that is not always easy to follow and never seems to be headed anywhere in particular except to remind us of the tragic collision between the native peoples of Africa and the white Europeans who subjugated them -- for a time.

The scenes are narrated by Gien as a 6-year-old (here given the name Elizabeth) and played out on a single set, a concave scrim lit with an abstract, primordial pattern suggesting a prehistoric rock face. Hanging against the scrim is a child's swing to remind us of the immediate time frame of the play and its point of view.

Choosing a 6-year-old narrator offers Gien the chance to reconstruct the unnatural state of racial oppression through a child's uncomprehending eyes, but the chirping schoolgirl voice she employs as Elizabeth is a problem, pushing her toward the realm of unwanted caricature. She does better with the bass notes she finds to embody her beloved housekeeper, Salamina, and other adults, black and white.

In all, Gien plays the parts of 24 different people, including her mother, father and brother, as well as maids and taxi drivers. Her father -- or at least the father of the narrator -- was a doctor who, as was the custom of the time, used separate rooms for examining black patients and white. When Salamina's daughter is born right there in front of Elizabeth in her home, we learn they must keep the baby a secret because by law she has no right to live outside the black township and would be taken from Salamina by the authorities.

This and other outrageous indignities are recalled by Gien's immature narrator and then expanded into real time as the characters come to life in a rainbow of accents more notable for her use of them than her ability to make them always understood.

The curse of racial prejudice hanging over South Africa is very much the main theme here and takes on tragic consequences when Salamina's daughter is later gunned down by police during the Soweto riots and Elizabeth's grandfather is hacked to death on his farm by a black freedom fighter from Rhodesia.

The episodes she builds to dramatize these horrors are in themselves disturbing and full of sorrow. They are vivid anecdotes, but they remain anecdotes, separate from a larger whole we might call art.

Trying to reckon with the knowledge that "The Syringa Tree" won the 2001 Obie Award for the best play produced off Broadway in New York, one thinks: Hasn't all this been said before and so much better by Athol Fugard and Jon Robin Baitz in the theater and by Nadine Gordimer, Rian Milan and others in prose? There is little new about the way Gien has used incidents in her own life to revisit this sadly familiar dark terrain.

She brings an unmistakable passion to the subject of her familial connection to a troubled homeland. Yet other than the sound of a gunshot and a scream or two, there is not a single surprise in the entire 90 minutes.

One-person shows are tough. If the subject is the life of a famous person as was the case with Ron Silver becoming the rock impresario Bill Graham in "Bill Graham Presents" at the Canon a few years ago, they at least carry a built-in curiosity factor for what they will reveal about the late and great. Anna Deavere Smith's remarkable one-woman journalistic reconstructions of topical events have the built-in drama not only of her memorable characterizations but also of her provocative lines of inquiry.

"The Syringa Tree," for all its politically correct intentions, looks drab by comparison. It remains an exercise in personal soul-searching that pulses and vibrates with exotic, far-off sounds but ultimately doesn't arrive at a place of much discovery for the audience.

Actresses Gin Hammond and Eva Kaminsky will rotate in the role with Gien every third performance.



`The Syringa Tree'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: Tuesday-Friday at 8.p.m.; Saturday, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m.

Ends: Dec. 1

Price: $29.50 to $44.50

Contact: (626) 356-PLAY

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

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