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The Syringa Tree — Theatre Horizon

untitled (122)In the yard of the gated Johannesburg property in which Elizabeth spends her childhood, the syringa tree, a South African variant of an orange tree, provides shade, something to climb, a sturdy frame from which to hang a swing, and a place for Elizabeth to meet and play with friends. It is also where Elizabeth goes to contemplate life from the point of view of a girl ranging in age from eight to eighteen and to find solace from incidents and matters that confuse or trouble her.

Pamela Glen’s lovely and delicate play, “The Syringa Tree,” goes deeper. Using Elizabeth’s formative years as a basis, it puts a face on everyday existence in South Africa during the period of Apartheid that legally denied black inhabitants rights and privileges equal to those of their English and Afrikaaner neighbors whose roots were in Great Britain and The Netherlands.

Elizabeth’s family has been in South Africa for generations. Her father is a successful obstetrician and can afford to keep his family in a style that is typical among his class. In addition to his wife and children, he has live-in help — a cook, a nanny, and a chauffeur — in his home.

For Elizabeth, this blurs the ignominy of Apartheid. She bonds strongly with her nanny, Salamina, and probably loves her as much, if not more, than she does her parents or younger brother.

Salamina is more than a fixture in Elizabeth’s life, she is an anchor that starts as a playmate. dancing and singing with her charge around that syringa tree, and growing into a confidante and additional parent figure. The love the child and caregiver share spreads to Salamina’s daughter, Moliseng, a focal character in Glen’s play.

Of course, Apartheid impinges on Elizabeth’s consciousness. As she becomes older, she is increasing aware of the separation between black and white, she knows about the black settlement in Soweto, and she is cognizant of laws that affect only black people, such as their need for identity cards and their assignment to a specific place. Salamina is permitted to remain with Elizabeth’s family, the Graces, in their home because Dr. and Mrs. Grace have filed the papers required to have that happen, but Moliseng, delivered by Dr. Grace and unknown to authorities, is in constant jeopardy of being found and forced to live in Soweto because she is not protected by proper papers.

Moliseng will dominate a lot of the more dramatic events in “The Syringa Tree,” a gentle play that involves as much direct storytelling and narration as it does fully played-out scenes with dialogue, and one that Glen writes in a voice that can almost be categorized as soft-spoken. Except for a few scenes in which Salamina is anxious about Moliseng, emotions and vocal tones are kept at an even level. “The Syringa Tree” holds your interest and has some moving passages, but the calmness in Glen’s narration and the matching ease in Steve Pacek’s production of “The Syringa Tree” for Theatre Horizon make the play one you hear more than see. “The Syringa Tree” works best as a story, and while Kristyn Chouiniere, as Elizabeth, and Alice Gatling, as Salamina, do a remarkable job as a variety of characters and reach your heartstrings on multiple occasions, the flowing tone of Glen’s narrative prevails. You listen more carefully than you watch because Glen’s most poignant vignettes and most galling commentary about Apartheid live in her words more than any character’s single action or ordeal.

Glen’s and Pacek’s quiet approach does not prevent “The Syringa Tree” from being effective either as literature or theater. As events surrounding Elizabeth unfold, the insidiousness of Apartheid is understood more and more deeply. You respond to the indignities of South African policy as viscerally as if they being lavishly or more overtly dramatized. The mild route Pacek’s production takes has the same cumulative result as loud, teeth-gnashing play might. It presents Apartheid as even more shameful, more poisoning, when it is the stuff of everyday life and has to be accounted for in so many people’s ordinary thoughts and actions. The seeming quietness underscores what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” while referring to Germany’s Third Reich. While your heart may not race or your blood pressure swell, you are appreciably appalled by what the Graces, Salamina, and Moliseng endure. The burden, and tediousness, of dealing with Apartheid so constantly, comes clear, and that is the beauty of both Glen’s writing and Pacek’s direction.

“The Syringa Tree” spans 40 years of Elizabeth’s life, so a lot occurs. Glen and Pacek make sure there are sufficient high points to keeps your ears pricked for the outcome of a situation, but most events are reported in a matter-of-fact manner. Again, the drama in “The Syringa Tree” comes from your attentive response and growing unease with Apartheid more than from the stage.

You’d think tension would be rife when you consider that “The Syringa Tree” includes one child coming of age and dealing with all of the passages of girlhood and teenage years, the disappearance of a character, the illnesses of characters, some racial tension between Mrs. Grace and the chauffeur, a gratuitous killing in a farm district near Johannesburg, Salimina leaving the Graces’ home, Moliseng taking a leading part in the famous Soweto student uprising, Elizabeth and her mother often worrying about how Apartheid will affect Salimina and Moliseng, the apprehensive fear the Graces and Salamina endure when they realize a conservative Afrikaaner neighbor has seen Moliseng, and the concern everyone feels when the South African police are nearby. All that happens is relatedly so simply, you take all of it in, and react intellectually to it. Your emotions stay even while your mind recoils at the unfairness, moralism, and sanctioned brutality of a South Africa from not that long ago.

Because Elizabeth advances to adulthood, you also hear about the defeat of Apartheid and South Africa’s free elections. A reunion between a middle-aged Elizabeth and septuagenarian Salamina leads to a very satisfying grin and is a great cap to a smooth ride that unsettles you in subtle ways.

Both Theatre Horizon actresses are wonderful in their multiple parts. Alice Gatling can convince you she is a playfully naughty toddler one minute, then be a distraught Salimina the next.

Gatling has a great gift of depth that gives dignity and poignancy to everything Salamina does, even when she wails in agony about the absence and illness of Moliseng.

Gatling also scores as the chauffeur, Peter, who one day scares Mrs. Grace by saying black South Africans will rise up one day and claim what is theirs, in which he includes the Graces’ property.

Few dramatic moments are sustained long enough to create a deep effect, but even fleetingly, Gatling can touch your heart and let you see Salimina’s angst. She also beautifully expresses the character’s happy and giddy sides.

Kristyn Chouiniere has the much more difficult assignment as the less demonstrative Elizabeth. She truly has to made her narration pay and keep “The Syringa Tree” interesting.

To everyone’s credit, Chouiniere does a magnificent job. She grips you with Elizabeth’s story from the beginning and makes sure you remain keen on following it.

Like Gatling, Chouiniere plays several parts. You see the stiffer but slightly nervous cast she gives Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Grace, and the gentle but pronounced sternness she gives Dr. Grace. One of the best sequences in “The Syringa Tree” is when the Graces are having a discussion about an action Mrs. Grace takes in regard to Moliseng, a move you applaud but Dr. Grace castigates in terms we may find cruel and unjust.

Chouiniere is also funny as a neighboring minister who has a tendency to visit the Graces on Sunday to make sure they spend a few moments in prayer. Chouiniere captures the fatuousness, pomposity, and self-satisfaction of this character in the economic way she and Gatling have to denote many of the people they play in a two-hander crowded with characters.

Jillian Keys’s costumes for the production were excellent, Elizabeth’s dress serving well for a child, a teen, or an adult, Salimina’s dress being convincing as play clothes for Moliseng.

“The Syringa Tree” runs through Sunday, November 9, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, in Norristown, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $38 to $34 and can be ordered by calling 610-283-2230 or by visiting www.theatrehorizon.org.

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