I am not a crier. So don’t let the fact that I did not shed a tear at the end of The Syringa Tree color your decision to see it. In 2001, when it debuted in New York, people were supposedly so overcome with emotion that they sobbed all the way out into the street. Then again, New Yorkers are not known for their ability to contain their feelings. We Minnesotans, though—well, if you want us to cry, it better be something worth crying about.
At the end of Saturday night’s performance I could hear people sniffling, and one woman a few rows in front of me dabbed her eye a couple of times, but the waterworks were pretty much over by the time people got to the dessert buffet. Once the wine was poured and people started chatting, all the talk was about what a magnificent actor Sarah Agnew is, and what a tremendous display of her acting talents the play is, and how even the most supremely talented of artists would think twice about taking on such a profoundly awesome professional challenge.
Indeed, if acting were ice skating, Pamela Gien’s The Syringa Tree would be an inverted quadruple toe loop with a triple sow-cow sit spin: about six hundred of them, back to back, with no rest, for an hour and a half. Everything about the play seems designed to ratchet up the level of difficulty. One actor playing more than twenty characters—check (twenty-two). Ridiculously broad age range—check (newborn to eighty-three). Multiple accents—check. White girl playing large, black nanny—check. White girl playing a black man—check (quite a few of them, actually).
Sarah Agnew has been lighting up the stage at Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the Guthrie for years now, but there is something about her decision to do this play that smacks of an actress throwing down the professional gauntlet: “You know I’m good, but I bet you didn’t know I was this good!”
Now we know. She is good, very good, though five or six of the characters in the play seem like they were tossed in just to impress the judges. Agnew is at her best while playing six-year-old Lizzie Grace, the daughter of a white doctor and his wife in 1960s South Africa who seem to have a whole house full of black folks working for them. I am not going to spoil the plot for you (because, honestly, I did not entirely follow the plot). Suffice it to say that there is a lot of tension between the whites and blacks, the police do a lot of sniffing around for an illegitimate baby that the doctor family is hiding, and everyone gets nervous whenever they come around—and for good reason, it turns out.
That’s all I’m going to say, except that holy multiple-personality disorder, that Sarah Agnew can act! It’s astonishing to watch her transition from character to character with such seamless ease. And the fact that she can sustain a conversation between five different characters in a room all by herself is a profound testament to her skills. Back and forth she goes, from a six-year-old nuisance to an annoyed mother to a black nanny to a menacing police officer to an aging grandmother. It’s a clinic. Watch and take notes.
One more thing: If the Ivey Awards are looking for someone to give an award to, lighting designer Barry Browning deserves one for The Syringa Tree. All the scene changes in this play—day, night, sunset, inside, outside—are done entirely with light. The craftsmanship is exquisite, because other than an oversized swing there is nothing to look at onstage but a textured background and Browning’s luminous artistry. It’s beautiful work—so beautiful that it might bring a tear to my eye if I were the sort of person who cried about things like that, which I’m not.
But go see the play anyway.
The Syringa Tree continues at The Jungle Theater through March 9.