STORY WRITTEN BY M. ENGLISH
For 21st Century Media
Religious conflicts. Ethnic divides. Political rivalries.
The specifics change, but, sadly, the generalities remain the same through the ages.
In “The Syringa Tree” — the Pamela Gien play running Oct. 16-Nov. 9 at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon — apartheid is the devil that drives the details.
Gien’s story revolves around the relationship between white South African Elizabeth and her black nanny, Salamina, during the turbulent 1960s and beyond. Salamina’s role in Elizabeth’s life far surpasses mere caretaker. And the heartbreaking moral dilemmas that affect their two families — from Elizabeth’s idealistic physician father and emotionally-spent mother to Salamina’s ill-fated daughter, Moliseng — are as emotion-fraught as the dramas that bind the closest blood relatives.
The title of Gien’s loosely-autobiographical play is a nod to the lilac-like tree behind Elizabeth’s home in one of suburban Johannesburg’s white enclaves. The syringa’s fragrant branches are a personal refuge as childhood innocence gives way to her increasing awareness of apartheid’s unspeakable cruelties and suffocating grip on South Africa.
Given lilacs’ common acceptance as symbols of love, the syringa image is particularly apt, spokesmen for the local production believe.
“‘The Syringa Tree’ is about family,” Assistant Director Mekeva McNeil said. “It represents the bond and the love between people that are born into a family and people that become family … chosen family. Through acts of love, characters in the play protect, save and help each other. These gestures are perfect symbols for what the syringa’s lilac flower symbolizes.
“(In today’s world), we continue to focus on how people are different rather than the same, which is terribly sad. Apartheid is happening during the time of this play, but we see how the characters forge together in love despite the circumstances. Fundamentally, at every turn on the globe, there are conflicts due to human differences. ‘The Syringa Tree’ does an excellent job of illustrating how we can choose to function in this world through love, respect and understanding.”
The play was written for a sole actor, initially South African native Gien herself. However, in the years following its premiere in Seattle and subsequent Off-Broadway opening in 2001, many directors have opted to use two women in the primary roles — among them, Steve Pacek, director of Theatre Horizon’s staging.
“Two actors give the audience an opportunity to see relationships,” Pacek reasons. “In the single actor performance of ‘The Syringa Tree,’ one has to imagine what those interactions are like. The audience has to use their imaginations much more. In Theatre Horizon’s production, you will see two people on stage together and affecting each other instantly instead of seeing what one person is saying (and) imagining … the other person’s (reaction).
“It will bring both sides of the conversation to the table, and we’ll get to see the sparks that fly when human beings interact in time and space. Sparks of love. Sparks of hate. Sparks of fear and of doubt. And sparks that can be doused by the power of forgiveness.”
Kristyn Chouiniere and Alice M. Gatling, currently a Barrymore nominee for her role as the mother in InterAct Theatre Company’s “Gidion’s Knot,” are the leads in the local telling of Gien’s story. Chouiniere was previously cast as understudy for Elizabeth during Arden Theatre Company’s 2005 Philadelphia premiere of “The Syringa Tree.”
Pacek and Set and Lighting Designer Thom Weaver also have prior connections to the play. Pacek initially learned about “The Syringa Tree” while assisting Larry Moss — who had directed its Off-Broadway premiere — with another show. Weaver was assistant lighting designer for the Off-Broadway staging.
“The New York production wasn’t too long before that, so Larry was talking about it all the time,” Pacek explains. “One of the stars of our show had spent a lot of time in South Africa, so they would reminisce and talk about a lot of the places and events of ‘The Syringa Tree.’ That got my curiosity piqued, to hear so much about this amazing place that I had only ever seen in the news. When I finally read it, I fell in love with the language and images and the emotion it evoked in me. I really connected to these people that feel so much and have a tremendous capacity to love and care for those the rest of the world think we ought not to love and care for — such compassion in the face of such harshness.”
According to Theatre Horizon spokesmen, Weaver’s set — “a fantastical tree-like structure (that uses) a real tree the technical team cut down” — is designed to “showcase the fragmented way the characters’ memories will surface.”
Pacek and McNeil describe a stage “set up in such a way that is reminiscent of earth, dirt and dew grasses that are evocative of the South African veld.”
“A cyclorama will dress the upstage area, allowing for (Weaver) to create that beautiful African backdrop of varying sun transitions and the vast, blue cloud-filled sky,” they add. “The goal is to create the majesty of expanse.
“Language is also largely relevant to evoking the environment for this play. The characters speak many dialects, from Xhosa to Afrikaans, (and) … Gien also includes traditional South African songs that we hear throughout the play. All of these factors work to establish the life of ‘The Syringa Tree.’”
The show’s production staff also includes Toby Pettit (sound design), Jill Keys (costume design), Stephen Hungerford (technical director) and Melissa Erlick (stage manager).
IF YOU GO: “The Syringa Tree” is scheduled to open Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m. All performances will take place at Theatre Horizon’s home stage, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. Tickets cost $20-$38 with discounts available for students and senior citizens. In addition, free tickets are available for Norristown residents with proof of residency. For eservations or more information check www.theatrehorizon.org or call (610) 283-2230.