Drama in Black and White

One's a crowd: Agnew inhabits more than 20 characters in 'The Syringa Tree'
Michal Daniel

at the Jungle Theater
through March 9

No matter the particular circumstances, there are always times in life when the question is whether to stay or go, to engage experience or leave its offerings untouched on the table. The circumstances of Pamela Gien's drama involve the intensities of life in apartheid-era South Africa, and in telling the stories of two families (one black, one white), it teases out the mysteries of what matters to us, what we want to draw near, and what we need to keep at arm's length.

Sarah Agnew is alone onstage for the duration of this nearly two-hour show, and along the way she portrays more than 20 characters. We first meet little girl Elizabeth, who sways from a swing on a bare set and holds forth on the fortune-telling attributes of the spots on our fingernails. Agnew invests her character with a scratchy, high voice that from the onset signals the wary tension that envelops everything that comes to pass.

In due course we meet Salamina, the family maid, whom Agnew plays with a deep voice and benevolent grace, switching back and forth between her and Elizabeth as the two discuss the dance the little girl wants to perform at her own wedding. Reality is a bit closer for the adult Salamina, of course, and soon she gives birth to daughter Moliseng. The catch: Moliseng's illegitimate birth has to be kept a secret from the authorities, who prowl the countryside at night to intimidate and control the area's black population.

Agnew by this time is engaged in heroic levels of transformation, and it is to her and director Joel Sass's credit that the seams between each change are essentially invisible. She turns pinched and restrained as Elizabeth's mother, benevolent if disengaged as her father, bratty and malicious as Loeska, a young friend from next door with a talent for stoking Elizabeth's insecurities. As the young, obviously beloved Moliseng, Agnew morphs into a toddler spouting gibberish, at one point somehow managing to shower herself with kisses in an exchange with Elizabeth.

A bit of conventional drama arises when Moliseng goes missing (Agnew portrays the household's black servants' reaction with leaden resignation), and Elizabeth's mother goes off in search of the girl. Salamina basically loses her mind, while Elizabeth's mother leaps into action and saves the day. Agnew pitches this stuff with emotional intensity, the two families linked by common experience and affection, albeit with their abilities to act warped by the brutality of their society. (When Elizabeth's mother orders her driver into the black township, it is with a real doubt whether they will make it out alive; it's a nifty reverse demonstration of the way black South Africans must have experienced everyday life).

Sass designed the set, which, other than the swing, consists of a painted back wall on which Barry Browning's lights gorgeously depict shades of sere brown, striated daylight, and the deep dark of starry night. What follows are events that run an emotional range to match: Salamina disappears, Elizabeth grows up, and a pair of deaths arise from the violent death spasms of the apartheid system. Elizabeth finally opts to leave her homeland, years after her mother resignedly tells her, "We have no answers for this place, Lizzie."

Eventually this leads to bittersweet reunion, and Agnew handles the emotional climax with depth, dignity, and seemingly inexhaustible reserves of sheer ability. But this is the kind of work, in the end, that one admires and respects more than loves. You can't help but root for Agnew, and wonder at the range of conceptual creativity that has gone into this work, yet there's a sense that Gien assembled a collection of types for this scenario and set them loose with conclusions in mind (and points to make) rather than letting them breathe as distinct characters. Like Elizabeth herself, I found myself wanting refuge—a tree to climb, or another land in which to escape. I wanted to take the plunge on this one, to give myself up to experience, but too often felt as though I was standing on the sidelines. 

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