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Swinging a Second Time

The Barksdale revives "The Syringa Tree" with one-woman wonder Jill Bari Steinberg.


The revival of "Syringa" opens next week at the Barksdale Theatre, where the space and the budget are larger, and so are the expectations. Luckily, the two most important elements of the first production are returning: accomplished director Keri Wormald and acting virtuoso Jill Bari Steinberg.

In this show, Steinberg portrays more than 20 characters, ranging from a 2-year-old to a grizzled octogenarian, and speaks in a wide range of dialects, including the glottal "click" language of the African Xhosa tribe. The main character is Elizabeth, a white girl whom we see grow from a playful 6-year-old to a mature woman during the course of the play. The love she feels for her African nanny is complicated by the racial tension that infuses her surroundings. Style recently spoke with Steinberg about revivals, relevance and baby Einsteins.

Style: Why are you doing this play again?

Steinberg: I think Keri and I both feel very lucky to be able to revisit something that we love. When the Barksdale approached us about doing it again, I didn't think twice about it. The show is so beautiful, and now that we've gotten back into it, we didn't realize how many ways we could make it better. We keep finding new things in the show, so it feels like a great opportunity to take it to another level. That's the long answer. The short answer is because I'm absolutely crazy.

What will be different between this production and the one two years ago?

When we first did the show, we were surprised that it was so successful. So we've really approached doing it over as a challenge to do it better. Each character is clearer, the transitions are faster. In a way, it makes it harder than the first time because there's more pressure. It's like if you had one child that turned out to be a baby Einstein. Everyone expects your next one to be brilliant too.

You are older and wiser since the original production. Has your approach to any of the characters changed?

I feel more mortal than I did two years ago. I've had friends who have passed away since the first production. So each of these characters has a little more urgency. I feel a little more empathy for each of them.

In this show, you are onstage for more than 90 minutes without a break. How do you keep your energy up?

I'm at an age when I'm starting to feel my physical limits. So to prepare for the show, first I had to get in better physical shape. I'm also really careful about what I eat now — no pleasure eating. In fact, we're probably the healthiest production ever because everyone's in it with me. There's no Cheetos at rehearsal. It's all trail mix and nuts and health bars — not one fatty thing.

I'm also working with a vocal coach. In order to get my voice in shape, I have to stretch my vocal cords so I can use my upper and lower registers. It's like stretching a muscle, like a runner would. I also take naps, which I've never done before. After a rehearsal these days, it's sometimes all I can do to make it up my stairs.

What relevance does a story about apartheid have today?

You know, it's easy with something like Hurricane Katrina, or when any disaster happens, to see how we all depend on each other. But there are situations happening all of the time — in Bosnia or Rwanda or Iraq — that are reminders that in the human race we are all carrying each other. There's a line in the play when Elizabeth's father says to her: "We're all just part of the Earth, and we carry one another with us ... wherever we go ... for all time." That's really the message of "Syringa Tree." S

"The Syringa Tree" opens at the Barksdale Theatre at The Shops at Willow Lawn on Friday, April 21, and runs Wednesday-Sunday through May 21. Tickets are $22-$28. Call 282-2620 for details.

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