For its recent productions, the Portland Stage Company certainly couldn’t be accused of overpopulating its wide stage with actors. Their last show, “Halpern & Johnson,” featured just two performers, and their final offering of the season has a cast of one.

Of course, Stephanie Cozart, the solo star of “The Syringa Tree,” plays close to two dozen roles in the hour-and-40-minute production. And, as viewed at Friday’s opening performance, she plays them with great force and energy. “Wow!” and “Whew!” are words that came to mind while watching Cozart accept her standing ovation at the close.

The play, based in part on the real-life recollections of author Pamela Gien, takes place in apartheid-era South Africa. There, a middle-class, white family of English origin tries to carry on under an Afrikaner-dominated system that they believe treats nonwhites much too harshly.

It gradually becomes clear to this family that the system is falling apart. The human costs exacted and the glimmers of hope that may survive form the core of the story.

Cozart thoroughly inhabited the central role of Elizabeth, a self-described “hyperactive” pre-teen (for most of the play) who is as comfortable with the nonwhite staff of her parents’ household as she is with her mother and father.

As the youngster, the actress gets to add a substantial amount of cute to the proceedings while also relating the ramifications of the birth of a “secret” child to Salamina, an earthy charmer who, in addition to her household duties, teaches Elizabeth a thing or two about traditional African culture.

The brilliance of the play is how it reveals so much through the eyes of a child for whom what happens in the world comes sprinkled with a sense of wonder. Headstrong and sometimes exasperating to the grown-ups, Elizabeth nonetheless conveys an endearingly naive sincerity. Cozart nailed that element Friday, along the way eliciting many chuckles from the crowd.

Folklore, song and dance, though heard and seen mostly in snippets, are crucial elements in a story that seeks to reveal both where cultures meet and where they part ways.

Though the set by Wilson Chin is minimal, it fits well for a play that is really a sort of performance art piece — a storytelling with portions acted out (originally performed by the author). The lighting by Phillip S. Rosenberg nicely accentuates scenes and situations that range from joy to despair.

Director Jenn Thompson appears to have given a lot of freedom to Cozart, who had played the role(s) in the past. A tour de force performance is what this play calls for, and Cozart is certainly ready, willing and able to let that fly in telling the story of good people living in troubled times.

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.