I Am a Tree, written and performed by Dulcy Rogers, directed by Bob Koherr for the Lillian Theater at the Elephant Stages, tells a story of Claire, a 30-something woman who embarks on an odyssey to visit three elderly aunts. A letter from her now-institutionalized mother apprised her of their existence. This woman has just discovered that she's pregnant and she wonders whether her mother's madness is congenital or situational. The former, she thinks, would affect her decision to have the child. By the end of this exquisitely wrought Don Quixote tale, she realizes, with the help of this trio of eccentric relatives, that it's not a matter of whether she or her child-to-be will inherit her mother's affliction, it's the fact that the matter was unforeseen and thus reminds her, and us, that, with an uncertain future, one must process imperfect information, make educated guesses, and stride forth, confident and replete in the present moment.
It's billed as an unstable comedy, but that's too modest a description. It may be endearingly humorous because the aunts are so eccentric and Claire is so timidly adorable, a cross between Woody Allen and Shirley Temple. The scenes with the sisters are funny because the sisters are so outlandish. Her first encounter with each sister mixes apprehension with curiosity. But the scenes that stand out are the ones where the humor is mixed with fear and longing. Early on, her father reads the morning paper like the Great Sphinx of Gaza, while she, the chatty little girl tourist, tries to get the Sphinx to talk.
Really, though, it's a revelatory tale of how our identities are constructed from the many branches of the family tree. To listen to and watch how the three aunts variously describe their beloved sister is to understand that each narrative actually describes a portion of Claire's personality. We may suspect as much intellectually but it's hammered home by the charismatic performance of Ms. Rogers.
It doesn't feel like a one-woman show. Filling the stage physically, emotionally and, especially, verbally, Ms. Rogers seamlessly melds four characters, five including herself. The timing of her dialogues is miraculous; it feels contrapuntal, each Claire-utterance immediately rejoined by the personality of the character to whom she speaks. Back and forth she acquires data, insight, and perspective. You don't realize the extent to which she's filled the room with her one-woman choir of voices from the past until the end, when she talks to her mother, shrouded in mute darkness, and her mother doesn't talk back.
With painstaking craft and breathless execution, Ms. Rogers chiseled each posture, tone of voice, gesture, movement, and facial expression into a character that was credible and distinct. You could meet the three sisters on the street and you'd say, Oh yeah, that's Aurelia, empress of the Grand Gesture, that's chatterbox Lillian, that's judgmental Lou Ann. You'd see the father and go, he doesn't talk much but damn, isn't he smart? And then you'd see Claire and you'd realize, as we did that night, that she was operatic, she did carry on when the mood struck her, and she did seem a little wary about things. It makes sense doing this as a one-woman show: all these people, they are her family, in no little part, they are her. They share DNA, histories, and experiences. In the course of this enchanted evening, we discover, at the same time that Claire does, how she's accumulated and assimilated all these traits and quirks to become the woman she is.
Performances are 8pm, Thursday - Saturday. The show runs until July 17. Tickets are $20. The Theatre is located at 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 960-7711 or visit www.iamatree.net.