2 January 2005: Gien, The Syringa Tree

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Written and performed by Pamela Gien. Directed by Larry Moss. One hour, fifty-five minutes without intermission

A fine, moving story of growing up in Apartheid in South Africa. Gien is a fine actress who has told her own story through the faux-innocent eyes of her six-year-old fictionalized self, Elizabeth. (Part of a three-play series constituting “A South African Festival.”) We are shown the horrors of that racist society, but the play is no polemic; rather, it is strong on the human values and the pathos of the predicaments of both blacks and whites — and “coloreds,” that is, mixed races, under that cruel, life denying system. Pathos and irony are all the more powerful because seen and felt through the uncomprehending eyes of a winsome but intelligent and cannily observant little girl. Gien has the gifts and talents of a first-rate actress. You have the idea that she could play almost anything, from Viola to Medea. Her timing is well-nigh perfect, and her director has worked most suc­cess­fully with her to define an interesting repertoire of characters — mother, father, black nurse, maidservant, grandmother, grandfather, Afrikaans religious person who comes every Sunday to pray for rain — instantly identifiable by their voices and the postures and body language invented by Gien for the occasion. I found the high-pitched, childlike voice Gien used for the narrator difficult to understand, but I attribute that to some increasingly disturbing hearing loss (a problem I must address soon if I want to continue to enjoy a variety of theatrical experiences). Gien’s voice has a truly remarkable range, and she can command a variety of timbres and special effects, including the deep, male guttural qualities one associates with advancing age and failing health. She used the almost featureless set — the sole exception, a simple board swing suspended from the high limb of a syringa tree — in expert fashion, and the lighting (by Steven B. Mannshardt) helped to define shifting moods and new elements of action in the continuing story.

The price of success, in the case of a solo performance of this type, is the expertness of the transition from one character to another and from one mood or story element to another. Gien did this faultlessly and lucidly, holding the aud­ience easily, if not exactly effortlessly, in the benign grip of her powerful, affecting tale and her broad-ranging abilities as an actress.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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