'The Syringa Tree' review: strong roots

CREEDE — Pamela Gien’s semi-autobiographical play “The Syringa Tree” tells a moving story about growing up during apartheid in South Africa. Creede Repertory Theatre’s newest drama focuses on six-year-old Elizabeth Grace, the white daughter of a doctor, and Salamina Mashlope, her black nanny. Salamina gives birth to her daughter Moliseng in secret and hides the infant from the government. The law is “white by night,” meaning that no black citizen can be in the suburbs after curfew without special papers.

The play follows the two families throughout their tumultuous lives. In 1976 during the Soweto uprising, 14-year-old Moliseng and 20-year-old Elizabeth are swept up into the front lines of the conflict.

The racial tensions are timely, as director Tosin Morohunfola notes in the program. “The freedom to exist—to live, to love and to be—in America is what is being dishonored with Trump’s words,” he writes. Looking to the societal wrongs presented in history and media can help right the present.

Caitlin Wise and Portland Thomas are the only two actors on stage, playing 24 different roles between them. Wise mainly portrays Elizabeth and though Thomas has 18 roles, she is mostly Salamina and Moliseng.

In real life Wise is older than Thomas, but they make the reverse entirely believable. Wise has an infectious energy and the audience can’t help but smile and recall children of the same age. When the reality of apartheid sets in and Elizabeth stops fooling around, the stakes are palpable. Her innocence and mirth are a barometer.

Thomas, her foil, handles the more authoritative parts with strength and poise. The actors and their roles symbolize the duality of South Africa and its liminal, revolutionary state.

Like all young children, Elizabeth is extremely naïve. “Did you know there’s fairy dust?” she wonders. She’s an unreliable narrator telling the story from memory, which makes the limited roles work. For the most part, the suspension of disbelief holds and it doesn’t look like two people frequently talking to themselves.

While their clothing remains largely the same, accents and mannerisms make each role distinct. A stethoscope denotes Dr. Isaac Grace and a patterned baby blanket transforms Salamina into Moliseng. As a result the dialogue and quick changes are easy to comprehend.

However, some of the emotional power is lost when there are larger scenes that have four or more people. When Thomas plays both Iris and a crying Salamina, the fabric of the illusion begins to tear. Moments pass without Salamina seen and the audience has to be reminded there’s also supposed to be person wailing while two others have a conversation. The energy is absent. Background interactions between the supporting cast are gone. The spark doesn’t have the opportunity to bounce and build off others.

Nevertheless, “The Syringa Tree” is highly intimate and the liveliness returns in full with the tight set. The audience acts as bushes, tables for props and tertiary characters to interact with the cast. Actors break down the invisible barrier by walking up into the aisles.

But it’s the play’s signature swing that takes it beyond the norm. Wise and Thomas show off their trapeze skills, flying inches away from seated faces. Climatic scenes with the swing are beautiful choreographed in times of sadness, anger and closure. I can’t imagine seeing the same play not in the round.

The flexibility of Wise and Thomas, both in the theatrical and physical senses, creates an immersive show about resilience. The interpretation of the script is heartfelt and the message of ‘The Syringa Tree” leaves the cast and crowd in tears. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

“The Syringa Tree” is playing at CRT’s Ruth Humphreys Brown Theatre now through Aug. 26. It is rated PG-13 and tickets are available at 719-658-2540 or at www.creederep.org.

Verdict: Recommended.