‘Syringa Tree’ actresses deliver ‘stellar performances’

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A play about the love between a young caucasian girl and her cherished older black caretaker and their struggle for survival and acceptance in a beautiful, but tragic country beset by bigotry, racism and injustice, is currently taking place on the stage at Theater Horizon in Norristown.
     The play in question, “The Syringa Tree,” written by Pamela Gien, gives audiences a unique and sometimes deeply disturbing look at a truly sad period and place in human history, the Apartheid of South Africa that existed from 1948 until 1994.
     To successfully put on a complex and emotionally charged play such as this one is truly a daunting challenge, with choosing talented and versatile actors being of the utmost importance. Well, Theater Horizon certainly rose to the occasion in that all important endeavor, with Kristyn Chouiniere and Alice Gatling doing an excellent job in portraying the two complicated lead roles. Chouiniere plays the young Elizabeth Grace and Gatling plays Serafina, the matronly caretaker — and both play some minor roles — in truly impressive and convincing fashion.
     Unfortunately, the acting is the show’s only strong point, with the dialogue and the way the play is designed being the main obstacles to its success.
"The Syringa Tree." Submitted photo

“The Syringa Tree.”
Submitted photo

An excitable, energetic young girl named Elizabeth Grace slowly and cautiously opens her eyes and her mind to the shocking injustice and overall sad state of affairs all around her, with her home life, where she spends much time swinging from the syringa tree in her yard, being an enjoyable exception. In any case, while Liz becomes more knowledgeable about the tragedy and sadness in her country, she simultaneously falls deeper and deeper in love with Serafina, the gentle and understanding caretaker. Of course, their devotion to each other causes many problems for Liz and Serafina, being that they are on opposite sides of South Africa’s social structure. Another serious problem emerges when Serafina has a baby, the details of which are diligently kept secret by the Grace family.

     Eventually the two women separate and Liz ultimately becomes more of a participant in the revolt that is gaining momentum.
     Years pass and the two women are finally reunited, soon after which Serafina’s now teenage daughter gets killed while trying to rally protestors against the cruel authoritarian state that is South Africa.
    While Chouiniere is obviously a gifted actress,  using her in that role raises questions since she is an adult female playing a young, hyperactive, bouncy girl.
     In any case, it is often when Chouiniere is center stage when the dialogue fails, with the young girl often giving lengthy speeches about unimportant, often irrelevant things: things that have nothing at all to do with racism or Apartheid. In fact, somewhat frustratingly, the particular evils and harsh conditions of Apartheid are never discussed or referred to, or in any way illustrated.
     In reality, the two actresses make the most of a bad situation, seemingly ignoring the weak dialogue and heroically rising above it with their stellar performances.
     Also bothersome about this play is the fact the two actresses,  while never changing their appearance, go from one role to another and back again, doing so very quickly and so often that the result is utter confusion for the audience, with the audience members not always initially knowing who is actually speaking or when or where the action is taking place. This unfortunate circumstance is compounded by the fact the play is performed in just one 100-minute scene. Of course, without scene changes guiding the action along and giving the audience a sense of focus and comprehension, it becomes very difficult to keep things in the right context or proper perspective.
     “The Syringa Tree,” which is directed by Steve Pacek, will run at Theater Horizon until Nov. 9.
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