Night falls, a group of people -- a family, a clan, a tribe -- gathers around a campfire. The flames crackle, the wind whispers, and under the starry sky, one person begins to tell a story. As the tale unwinds, the tale teller shifts from third-person narrative to performance, using gesture and movement to conjure the characters. In such circumstances, long ago, theater was born. Nowadays, we don't spend much time around campfires, but something very ancient makes us huddle in groups before movie screens or stare mesmerized at the flickering light of a television set. But the closest we get to that primal event is still live theater, when a performer walks out to spin a tale for an audience, a tribe for an evening.
Such is the feel of GableStage's latest offering, Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree, a lyric coming-of-age tale set during South Africa's painful journey from apartheid to new nationhood. It's a daunting theatrical challenge. Gien, a South African actress based in California, wrote this loosely autobiographical piece as a 95-minute, intermissionless show with rigorous performance requirements: all of the characters -- dozens of them -- are played by one actress, and the interplay of different characters, cultures, and locales requires superior stage presence and performance clarity.
The story centers on a progressive white professional family, a Jewish doctor, his Anglo wife, and their daughter, Lizzy, a curious 6-year-old whose relationship with her black nurse, Serafina, is the emotional heart of the tale. South Africa's political upheaval profoundly touches Lizzy and her world. Serafina's tiny daughter mysteriously disappears, and Lizzy's grandparents are brutally murdered in a racial attack. Lizzy grows into adulthood, marries, and begins life anew in America, but she's deeply scarred by the sorrows of her past. Only a reunion with Serafina helps brings Lizzy some sense of healing.
The Syringa Tree
Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, 305-445-1119, www.gablestage.org.
Presented through May 1 by GableStage.
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This kind of show is the equivalent of a trapeze act without a net, with no allowance made for an off performance or a mishap. Artistic Director Joseph Adler took a gamble in casting local favorite Claire Tyler in this one-woman workout. Tyler, who scored well with a string of GableStage productions, is talented but inexperienced. Her short professional career has centered on supporting roles, not leads -- she hasn't had to carry a show, let alone a solo work. But Tyler has always demonstrated fierce commitment and courage, which is in evidence here with rather predictable results. Tyler's work is engaging and energetic, she handles the wide array of accents with skill, and she's got a keen sense of physicality.
But Adler's roll of the dice has some drawbacks. Tyler's on a steep learning curve. Much of the show centers on Lizzy as a child, whom Tyler portrays with the same wide-eyed opacity she has trotted out in several past performances. As a result, this characterization is the weakest, decidedly less interesting than Serafina, Lizzy's mother, or Lizzy as an adult. This may be a matter of nerves. Without preview performances to work out the kinks, Tyler seemed intimidated by her task on opening night, and her performance seemed rather out of focus in the early sections of the play, to the point that she lost her way entirely and had to call for a prompt from the light booth. I mention this not to snipe -- every performer "goes up" once in a while. But the sudden disconnect had a beneficial jolting effect -- after the glitch, Tyler was more focused, specific, and vivid, a better indication of what future audiences can expect.
While the show is graced by Gien's passionate, award-winning text, I have some reservations about it. The title itself is telling -- it refers to a tree close to Lizzy's house. But what exactly is a syringa tree? What does it look like? In this and dozens of other references, Gien doesn't bother to say, assuming the audience has a wide range of common references. Gien makes zero attempt to contextualize references to the differences between an English South African and an Afrikaner, the dangers of a township, the location of Soweto, and what it means. As a result, American audiences may struggle to understand aspects of this play (including the thick accents), and story details tend to be lost early on. But as the play gains momentum, the confusions resolve themselves, and many scenes -- the description of the murder, an account of a teenaged rebel in the riots of Soweto, a final, touching reunion -- are riveting, vivid, and incendiary.
Director Adler may be hampered by the text's flaws, but he goes a long way toward remedying this with bold staging that sets the standard for the South Florida theater season. Using Tim Connolly's fine, stark setting (a huge, tie-dyed backdrop, a dirt floor, and a rope-and-wood swing), as well as bold lighting effects from Jeff Quinn and an outstanding sound and music design from Michael J. Hoffman, Adler conjures up tactile, visceral scenes that add welcome layers of reality and emotion. Adler skillfully uses specific stage locations to help the audience recall specific characters and plot lines and effectively exploits the spatial planes of his huge empty stage. In Tyler, he has a physically attuned performer who steps from one characterization to the next with grace. The result is a welcome rush of imaginative, evocative theater.