Review: 'I Am a Tree' is clumsy but evocative

PETER SANTILLI Associated Press Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- The beginning of Dulcy Rogers' evocative, but slowly evolving, family drama "I Am a Tree" reinforces a truism about any multi-character play acted by a single person: It's not easy.

The writer and performer of the one-act, one-woman show, which opened Thursday at the Theatre at St. Clement's, struggles at times to carry both ends of a dialogue, while intermittently hopscotching into narration mode and then back again.

The ambitious, rapid-fire approach works impressively in some cases, but takes some getting used to and too often blurs the lines between characters, whether intentionally or not.

It is Rogers' engaging vulnerability and bright genuineness that hold the audience through some early awkwardness. As her story gains momentum, she rewards the perseverance with a strangely compelling portrait of an unusual family and a thoroughly captivating, if gratuitously sentimental, final scene.

Under the direction of Allan Miller, Rogers alternates between her protagonist, Claire, and each of three additional characters that she visits one-by-one -- a trio of long-lost aunts who help her on a quest to learn about a mother she hardly knew.

In these conversations, the performer punctuates each character's lines by skipping a few steps in one direction and turning back to face the other to continue the dialogue. The constant shuffling around becomes a distraction, particularly during bursts of shorter lines, or when Rogers speeds up.

The wordy play, which recently had a well-received run in Los Angeles, could benefit from light editing in a number of clever but convoluted sequences that feel too much like written language, rather than speech. As a result of the overwriting, coupled with Rogers' occasionally rushed delivery, meaning tends to get lost somewhere among the lovely stand of trees that elegantly lines the back wall of the stage.

The cryptic title refers to Claire's first meeting in the series of interviews with her eclectic group of aunts, none of whom she had known previously. As Claire approaches apprehensively, she observes the elderly woman standing in her yard with arms outstretched like branches, gazing up at the sky and proclaiming, "I am a tree."

The woman explains that it's a form of meditation that allows her to "become part of all that is around me. And I am gone. I am free."

The aunts are all lavishly eccentric in starkly different ways. Their lives and reminiscences are variously involved in entertainment, the arts, international diplomacy and high society.

The two people who loom largest in Claire's psyche are her parents, who also happen to be the characters Rogers plays in only very minimal doses during the production. Most of what we know about Claire's parents, we learn secondhand from other characters.

Her father is a cold, emotionally detached bioscientist who is stationed in an Arctic research facility and generally unreachable.

Her mother suffers from a mysterious mental illness that has relegated her to life inside a psychiatric institution.

In the climactic scene of "I Am a Tree," which is on display at St. Clement's through June 30, Claire confronts her mother, who does not speak at all.

Unfettered by the rigors of having to speak for two people at once, Rogers is at her most poignant, and her Claire blossoms unexpectedly.