There's a formula for single-actor plays that can get pretty tedious. "What's that you say, Mr. President?" the actor playing some famous person says, then answers in an effort to imitate the president's voice. Some are historically interesting and even showcase an actor's versatility. But in The Syringa Tree Shipping Dock Theatre is offering a rare treat: an incredibly difficult one-actor drama that is moving and inspiring, and so beautifully performed that it doesn't even seem to be the virtuosic showcase that it certainly is.
Pamela Gien wrote this largely autobiographical drama to re-create her powerful personal impressions of the joys, beauties, horrors, conflicts, and abiding love she remembers from South Africa. Gien played it to great acclaim, becoming more than 20 characters in this tale of a little girl, her family, her beloved maidservant, and, especially, the native black girl who was like a younger sister to her. Elliptically, through the enthusiasms and sadnesses of that little girl, The Syringa Tree tells the story of modern South Africa. Its rich imagery includes songs and superstitions and terrible historical events.
But what has gained this beautifully written work so much international admiration is its ultimate assertion of humanity and indestructible love, even in the face of racial hatreds and seemingly hopeless conflicts.
Subtly directed by Barbara Biddy to avoid bravura display as well as off-putting repetition, Kerry Young is irresistibly involving in this demanding work. She brings us the two prating little girls who mature into strong-minded young women, mysterious deep-voiced native men, heavily accented Afrikaners, heartily vulgar neighbors, delicate women who sound British, and one melodious-voiced native South African servant who will break your heart. Don't miss this astounding performance.
The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien, directed by Barbara Biddy, plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through October 24 at Shipping Dock Theatre, in the Visual Studies Auditorium, 31 Prince Street. $12 to $22. 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org.