note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Pamela Gien returns to the A.R.T. with THE SYRINGA TREE, her semi-autobiographical impressions of growing up in South Africa during apartheid, centering on two families, white and black, whose destinies are ever intertwined. Ms. Gien plays forty characters, in particular Lizzie, the white daughter of the house, passing from childhood to maturity and various liberations. Using only a swing as prop and scenery, Ms. Gienís narrative recalls Katherine Mansfieldís New Zealand stories where the exotic becomes the everyday when seen through the eyes of a child; if Iíve a nitpick, it is my usual one against one-actor tour-de-forces: the more protean the turn, the more I become aware of the actorís crisscrossing virtuosity getting in the way of the material. The still-girlish Ms. Gien is not protean enough to differentiate between all of her characters and declaims Lizzie in a high, nasal sing-song so reminiscent of the late Butterfly McQueen that when I realized the childís correct race I had to mentally reshuffle the household, and after a while Ms. Gienís various howls, wheezes and guttural accents later force her to lower Lizzieís pitch due to vocal fatigue. (Does the actress realize that her nostalgia is a subtle embrace of apartheid in itself?) Still, Ms. Gien performs passionately for an hour and forty minutes sans intermission (this is the A.R.T., remember) and earns her standing ovation but THE SYRINGA TREE would also make a gorgeous tone-poem should it ever be played out with a multi-racial cast, colorful costumes and shimmering lights and sounds; of all the characters, Ms. Gien would be ideal as Lizzyís mother, torn between decorum and wishing to do the heartís right thing.