Juggling so many lines and roles can't be anywhere near as easy as Madden makes it look.
Big. Big, big, big -- The Syringa Tree is big. It's got white characters, black characters, men, women, old and young characters. It deals with racism, friendship, parenthood, honor, the meaning of home and more. It's big. And that's saying something, given that the American Players Theatre production has a cast of one.
The show, which opened Tuesday inside APT's Touchstone Theatre, stars Colleen Madden as a whole host of people, but mostly as Elizabeth Grace, a little girl growing up near Johannesburg, South Africa, in the 1960s. It's the era of apartheid as well as a time of drought, and although Lizzie's white family lives in relative peace with their black servants, an undercurrent of fear is ever-present. When the family's maid, for example, gives birth, the child must be constantly hidden from the highly religious, bigoted neighbors, lest they report her and she be taken away for lack of proper papers.
The fear is cut through and tempered, however, by many loving and humorous moments in Lizzie's life. Her story is told through brief narrative asides and dialogue, and Madden is simply astounding, in that it's not until the end of the nearly two-hour show (with no intermission) that it occurs to you that juggling so many lines and roles can't be anywhere near as easy as she makes it look.
Her accents are varied and convincing, and her timing is impeccable. And if some audience members find Lizzie endearing, while others consider her tiresome -- well, that's how people really feel about precocious children, no? Madden is just embodying the role, to the extent that it's a relief when one of the adults, such as Lizzie's mother, gets a couple minutes of extended monologue.
No matter whom she's playing here, the actor is deeply engaging, and C. Michael Wright's thoughtful direction and the minimal but lush stage -- a patchwork tapestry backdrop that spills over to cover the floor -- contribute enormously to the illusion she's crafting. Your imagination kicks in, and you're there, and you're laughing -- and then your eyes are suddenly wet.
If The Syringa Tree has a flaw, it's minor and it's in the writing. Playwright Pamela Gien is herself a white South African native who emigrated to the U.S. (as Lizzie eventually does), and the show at times feels autobiographically indulgent and as if it could benefit from the hand of an impartial editor. Thematically, it tries to squeeze maybe too much in, and takes too many liberties with your heartstrings near the end.
But it largely succeeds. The script's few weaknesses are outweighed by the sheer gorgeousness of its imagery -- a river of bloody bathwater, a shower of berries shaking free from a rising body -- and as a storyteller, Madden is masterful. She handles this big material with precisely the intimacy it deserves.