A World Apart 

In Horizon Theatre's one-woman show The Syringa Tree, Carolyn Cook doesn't just give one of the best performances of the year, she gives 24 of them. In Pamela Gien's autobiographical play based on her South African childhood, Cook transforms into two dozen characters: children and adults, women and men, English and Afrikaans, white and black.

Cook disappears so completely into each role that even if the play were merely a technical exercise, The Syringa Tree would be worth your while. Gien's story also provides a moving, unconventional perspective on the fragile beauties of South Africa and the unjust legacy of apartheid.

We witness Johannesburg life through the eyes of 6-year-old Lizzie, who has the hyperactivity of Eloise from the children's books. Born to well-off British parents, Lizzie grows up delighting in South Africa's splendors while puzzling over its dangerous rules. Her beloved nanny raises a baby girl called "Molly Sing" without state permission, so Lizzie's family must keep the black toddler out of sight, like she's playing a life-or-death game of hide and seek.

The play's childlike stream of consciousness gives way to gripping drama when crises erupt. When Lizzie and her mother travel by night to a township hospital on a tense errand, the journey takes on almost mythic proportions. Though Gien includes an overlong final section that takes Lizzie to adulthood after apartheid, the childhood narrative proves to be a rich, complete play on its own.

As Lizzie introduces us to warm-hearted black servants and suspicious white neighbors, Cook eases the transitions by giving the roles quickly identifiable traits: Lizzie's nervous mother keeps a hand constantly at her head, as if warding off a migraine. But the actress doesn't let the physical shorthand define the characters. Lizzie's gentle father and spirited nanny become such vivid personalities, we feel as though we can practically see them.

More than an anti-apartheid screed, The Syringa Tree traces the complexities of race, resistance and national identity in South Africa. In one of the most melancholy moments, Lizzie's father takes her aside and says, "Don't ever make this place your home, Elizabeth." But what can she do when it's the only home she knows?

CURT.HOLMAN@CREATIVELOAFING.COMThe Syringa Tree. Through May 15. Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. $20-25. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. 404-584-7450. www.horizontheatre.com.

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