A hard play’s work

When it comes to sports, most Americans prefer contests that can be decided in the time it takes to polish off a large pizza and a few beers. One hour of play is plenty, thank you.

But a quick conclusion is far less important to South Africans, who save their athletic fervor for endurance challenges such as soccer and cricket, a sport in which a single game can last the better part of the week. Anne Thibault’s show of stamina in the one-woman play The Syringa Tree, Pamela Gien’s fictionalized memoir of the apartheid era, recalls the heroics of those disciplined cricketers, who can be stationed in the crease for more than 12 hours of bat swinging.

At the end of Thibault’s show at North Carolina Stage Company, applause for the actress seems a poor substitute for an easy chair and a cold drink. Pure altruism requires the audience to keep curtain calls to a minimum.

“She must be exhausted,” a sympathetic spectator whispered to a friend after a recent performance.

During the show’s 90 intermissionless minutes, Thibault morphs into more than 20 characters, including a six-year-old girl, a 39-year-old Xhosa housekeeper and an 82-year-old grandfather. And the show isn’t merely a collection of soliloquies: These characters form a community, often engaging in swiftly moving, three- or four-way conversations.

The six-year-old, Elizabeth Grace, serves as the audience’s escort to the action. This is somewhat unfortunate, as she is Thibault’s weakest characterization. Elizabeth is militantly sunny — she names Pollyanna as her favorite film — and prone to speaking in exclamation points. No one expects a six-year-old to utilize many colons or semi-colons, but Thibault’s overly giddy interpretation further simplifies a character without moods or nuance. Few parents — Shirley Temple’s excepted — would recognize a real child here.

Thibault may very well be a victim of her material. When the script offers Elizabeth a crumb of everyday detail that rings true, such as a friend who adorns her fingers with “nails” fashioned from red, bell-shaped flowers, Thibault enlivens the imagery. But Elizabeth is too often saddled with wide-eyed “it’s a fact” lines that are regrettably reminiscent of comedienne Lily Tomlin’s character Edith Ann, the precocious five-year-old Tomlin positioned in an oversized rocking chair. (Reviewers of other Syringa Tree productions have also expressed exasperation with Elizabeth, wishing someone would send her and her innocent worldview to her room.)

The only character apparently capable of disciplining Elizabeth is Salamina, Elizabeth’s black nanny. The Graces’ relationship with Salamina and her infant daughter Moliseng — who lives with the family in violation of apartheid law — form the core of this domestic drama. Thibault nails this characterization, speaking and singing in an accented deep alto and bending her body so you can almost feel her backache.

It is a testament to Thibault’s tremendous skill that the audience always knows exactly who is speaking. Relying only on her voice and posture — there are no costume changes, or much of a set beyond a swing roped to an unseen tree and a few clumps of brush — Thibault distinguishes every character. She is most ably assisted by understated, but highly effective, sound design by Ray Park and lighting design by Matt Richards. Dialect coach Terry Weber helped attune Thibault’s ear to the subtleties of Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans and British South African accents.

The coherent narrative of The Syringa Tree dissolves in the last 12 minutes, as Elizabeth’s six-year-old incarnation suddenly gives way to her adult self. The hastily constructed conclusion does little to cement the play’s perspective. While the fates of the characters Thibault has so lovingly created are worthy of examination, it’s hard to reconcile this slapdash approach with the otherwise laborious performance.

Plenty of hard work is on display here — Thibault deserves a lengthy vacation after the show’s run — but little is expected of the audience. Since the narrator is a child, the plot she unfurls is elementary, understandable by even those who know nothing of apartheid. The payoff, of course, is equal to the effort: There are no new insights to be gained. But by successfully personalizing the political, the show qualifies as great storytelling.

[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]

North Carolina Stage Company concludes its run of The Syringa Tree in downtown Asheville (Walnut Street between Haywood and Rankin) Wednesday, Oct. 12 through Sunday, Oct. 16, with performances Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15-$22, depending on the date. Call 350-9090 or see www.ncstage.org for more information.


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