Stephanie Cozart acted in the one-woman play “The Syringa Tree” six years ago. It’s been part of her soul ever since.

“The characters have become friends,” she said. “When I last did the play, I was sad. I didn’t know if I would revisit them. I used to dream about them.”

Cozart portrays multiple characters. Collectively, they tell stories about the loving bonds between two South African families, one black and one white, that span four generations.

Her main character is 6-year-old Elizabeth, the daughter of an upper-class white family who is cared for by a black woman in the employ of the family.

Without invoking the word “apartheid,” “The Syringa Tree” explores the complex political world of South Africa and the social consequences of the legal system of segregation that governed the country from 1948 to 1993.

“The Syringa Tree” has its final preview tonight, and opens Friday at Portland Stage Company. It runs through May 22.

While specific to a time and place, the play is a story with universal themes of home, identity, loss and anguish. It has moments of sadness but ultimately feels hopeful, Cozart said.

“I hope the audience at the end of the play feels comforted and uplifted, particularly by the characters. It is a drama, but it is not a downer,” she said. “There are healing elements in the story that anyone can respond to. That’s why it’s had such a profound effect on me.”

“The Syringa Tree” was written by Pamela Gien, who was born in South Africa in 1957. The play grew out of a writing exercise, and premiered in Seattle in 1999. After being endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, it became an off-Broadway hit and has since been performed around the world.

A New York-based actress, Cozart makes her Portland Stage debut with “The Syringa Tree.” Joining her in this adventure is Jenn Thompson, who is directing. Thompson last appeared in Portland in 2005 as a cast member of “The Foreigner”; she has since moved exclusively to directing.

Thompson has an interesting connection to this piece. In 2006, she was cast to act in the play, but the production was canceled just as she immersed herself in the role. She remembers thinking that the project was immense for a single actor to tackle. In the time since, she has adopted a girl from Ethiopia, and travels regularly to the African continent. She feels very close to the play.

Before coming to Portland, Thompson and Cozart met in New York to talk about the play and their approach to it. Their dialogue was informed by recent world events. As they followed the news of social uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, they realized “The Syringa Tree” was surprisingly topical.

“So many of the images I was pulling up were of young Arab women at protests and rallies. The world moves forward on the backs on the young,” Thompson said.

The set for the Portland Stage production is abstract and simple — a large tree swing as the centerpiece, framed by a massive burlap backdrop that covers much of the stage. The tree swing is young Elizabeth’s refuge. When the world becomes too much for her to comprehend, she goes to the swing to escape.

The swing also serves as a refuge for Cozart. This is an exhausting show for a single actress. Even though Gien wrote it for a single actress, many productions feature multiple cast members.

Cozart has no opportunity to pause, no chance to take a drink of water or even clear her throat. The only opportunity she has to regroup are those moments when she can sit on the swing and go for a little ride.

As exhausting and challenging as the play is to perform, she feels honored to do it again.

“I really care about this story,” Cozart said. “It’s a story that must be told, and it’s a story that I want people to hear.

“It matters. It’s not a political story at all. It’s a love story.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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