As the elderly, bearded man sitting in front of me wiped tears from his cheeks, it was obvious that Theatre Horizon had something powerful in its hands with Pamela Gien’s semi-autobiographical story, THE SYRINGA TREE. I looked around and confirmed a room full of discreet tear-wiping.
Of course, as a friend put it as we were walking out, “You can’t have a happy play about apartheid.” But the solemn subject matter does present complex ground, and that landscape is navigated beautifully with just two actors and a sparse stage.
Using only a tree and a rope swing as set dressing, the play spans several generations of an English family living in South Africa, and the culture of the repressed black men and women who cook their food, drive their cars and help care for their children.
Kristyn Chouinere carries the burden of playing not only Elizabeth, whose memory is guiding the story, but every other white character that appears along the way. Added to that challenge is the fact that Elizabeth goes from a young girl, skipping and dancing and reciting native nursery rhymes, to a woman with a small child of her own over the course of the play.
Not to be outdone, Alice Gatling takes on the role of every black character, aging herself instantly from a toddler to an adult and back. Her portrayal of Salamina, Elizabeth’s caretaker, is layered and thoughtful in a way that distances itself from the American mammy archetype.
The skill and grace that Chouinere and Gatling use to transform into nearly a dozen roles each are vital to the communicating the powerful tale of different cultures coexisting through the tragedies of apartheid. Without their fluid transformations from role to role, the narrative might turn into a confusing mess of dialogue and accents. Some moments are lost early on, as the audience is adjusting to the way Elizabeth narrates her childhood. The first few transitions between characters are a bit jarring and it takes some time to catch up with Chouinere. Her manic 6-year-old persona jolts to her Afrikaner neighbor friend and back in a way that can give the audience whiplash.
As Elizabeth ages and the story unfolds, you begin to recognize and welcome each character as they appear, sometimes with as subtle a cue as a softened expression or a change in posture. THE SYRINGA TREE is a study in discipline, for the cast and the audience alike. Try to keep up, because the journey is worth the ride. [Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, PA] October 16-November 9, 2014; theatrehorizon.org.