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The Syringa Tree

July 5, 2010

A tree swing without the tree, a large patchwork textile drape done in earth tones and one enormously talented performer were all it took to bring to life American Players Theatre’s most moving and compelling play of the season.

Actor Colleen Madden and director C. Michael Wright teamed together once again to bring Pamela Gein’s “The Syringa Tree” to APT’s Touchstone theater July 29. The intimate Spring Green space and Madden’s dynamic, multi-faceted one-woman performance combined in an emotional ride that had audience members laughing, then weeping over the tale of a privileged daughter of a white English physician during South Africa’s era of apartheid.

Lizzie, Madden’s main character, begins the play as a hyperactive 6-year-old, growing to maturity under the care her black nurse Salamina. Along the way a baby is born, a riot occurs and several people die. Only sound effects, lighting cues and Madden’s astounding performance communicate the narrative, and rarely have they been used more effectively.

Madden plays 24 different roles – female and male, old and young, white as well as black – using nothing other than voices, inflections and physical movements. Not even her costume changes. Madden has always used voice to define her characters. Her ability to maintain distinctions between English and Afrikaner accents and manage the dialects of several African tribes — both speaking and signing – is remarkable. Her ability to make those characters as moving as they are during the uninterrupted two-hour performance is an almost unparalleled feat of acting prowess.

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