Placid Sauk County, Wis., is about as far as you can get from apartheid-era South Africa. But over five months in the summer and fall of 2010, Spring Green's American Players Theatre revisited the apartheid regime's horrors using a starkly simple format: one woman alone on a stage.
The woman was APT veteran Colleen Madden, and she performed Pamela Gien's semiautobiographical The Syringa Tree. It's the best play I've ever seen. I still cry when I think about it. The show reunited Madden and director C. Michael Wright, who in 2005 collaborated on a production of The Syringa Tree for Milwaukee's Renaissance Theaterworks.
Gien performed The Syringa Tree Off Broadway, to acclaim, and you might think another actress would have difficulty pulling off a play so closely associated with its author. But with remarkable, dramatic shifts in movement and voice, Madden fully inhabited the play's two dozen characters, among them a little Johannesburg girl; her liberal, English-speaking parents; their black servants; and their suspicious Afrikaner neighbors. Madden's performance was a triumph, a tour de force, and in the intimate confines of APT's indoor Touchstone Theatre, every nuance was magnified.
The play's success owed to more than dazzling acting. Madden told a crucial story of one of the 20th century's great manmade calamities, and the 20th century didn't lack for great manmade calamities. The play concludes with a tragic development that seems senseless, except that in apartheid's cruel logic, it makes perfect sense.
I hesitated to propose a theatrical performance for this collection. This Syringa Tree truly is a masterpiece, but since you can't see the play, you'll have to take my word for it. Maybe Colleen Madden will perform it again someday. Ms. Madden?