THE SYRINGA TREE
This is Jerry’s review of the original Playhouse production.
For its production of The Syringa Tree, Pamela Gien’s solo reminiscence of growing up white in apartheid South Africa, the Playhouse is alternating Gien and Canadian Caroline Cave, who won a Best Actress award in Toronto for her performance.
Gien is reportedly fantastic. I saw Cave in the role and can’t imagine anyone doing it better. But as marvelous and heartfelt as the acting is, the script raises some disturbing questions.
Kenneth Foy’s bare set has only a large swing representing the syringa tree in the garden of six-year-old Elizabeth’s family home, with a beautiful semi-circular cyclorama as backdrop. Barefoot in a simple shift, without props or costume changes, Cave tells her story from the little girl’s perspective while playing twenty additional characters.
They include Lizzy’s English South African parents, her black nanny Salamina, and Sally’s daughter Moliseng. Cave also channels other black servants in the Grace household, their Afrikaans neighbours, her grandparents, plus various doctors and police.
Not since Eric Peterson did Billy Bishop Goes to War has such remarkable versatility been seen on the Playhouse stage. Cave’s vocal range is amazing, from the white child’s little girl voice to the deep, rich sing-song of the large black woman. She animates each character with absolute clarity and virtually dances the roles in an intensely physical and committed performance. When she beats her upper chest in rage or sorrow, angry red welts appear. This actor is absolutely present in every character.
Her story is that of the sympathetic white liberal whose black servants become like family to her and return her love and affection in kind. The social tragedy of apartheid claims its victims but individuals transcend it. The play moves inexorably towards a reconciliation between adult Elizabeth and aged Salamina that makes it impossible for an audience not to be moved.
But the racial politics of the play are far from clear. Lizzy’s family are the good whites. Her physician father takes flak for treating black patients, and they all protect little Moliseng from being arrested for not having proper papers. The police are brutal and the fanatically religious Afrikaaners are racist monsters.
Yet Lizzy’s own home is an apartheid microcosm of casual, unconscious racism. Her father is “the master,” her mother “Madame,” and even little Lizzy is “Miss” to the blacks whose own children are “pickaninnies,” living outside “the big house” and eating the whites’ leftovers. When the play awkwardly shifts forward in time to celebrate the end of apartheid, Salamina is still a servant in a white family’s home.
Neither Lizzie nor the playwright seems to notice these contradictions, and director Larry Moss, who helps shape Cave’s beautiful performance, does nothing to clarify them.
What if, rather than a second white actress telling Lizzy’s story, a black actress told the same story from Salamina’s perspective? All might not seem so heartwarmingly rosy through her eyes.
Due to popular demand, the show is being held over a week to November 5.