Playwright: Pamela Gien
Company: Creede Repertory Theatre
Venue: Ruth Humphreys Brown Theatre, 120 South Main Street, Creede, Colorado.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).
Date of Performance: Saturday, June 24, 2017.
Syringa Tree: A genus of woody shrubs and trees, commonly known as lilacs. Native to southeastern Europe and Eastern Asia but widely and commonly cultivated in temperate areas elsewhere. (From the program glossary.)
|Segregation in South Africa under apartheid.|
Playwright Pamela Gien’s syringa tree is a childhood memory, part of the natural beauty of her native South Africa. More importantly, though, is the syringa tree’s power to connect Elizabeth, or "Lizzie," (Caitlin Wise) to the people in her life. It is under the syringa tree that Gien tells Lizzie’s story of growing up white in the last years of apartheid in South Africa.
Make no mistake. The Syringa Tree is a challenging script for any audience. It’s non-linear, spoken with a heavy South African accent, and the two actors play multiple roles. That challenge is a foreseeable result of telling a story through the eyes of a child. Like all challenges, however, there are substantial rewards for accepting it. It may not be your cup of tea, but if it is, it may be the sweetest tea you’ll ever taste.
I couldn’t help but think, as I watched Lizzie’s story unfold, what a difficult script The Syringa Tree must be for the actors. Caitlin Wise and Portland Thomas (Salamina) carry the entire weight of the production on their shoulders for nearly 2.5 hours. With a few props and a couple of swings attached to the syringa tree, they have to transport the audience to a foreign land in a troubled time to tell a fractured story. Wise and Thomas are professionals, and they make their difficult task appear effortless.
|Caitlin Wise (Elizabeth and others).|
Hyperactive is unquestionably the correct term. Wise's Lizzie bounces around the stage, narrating in a stream of consciousness that could only come from a child. She learns Scottish dancing. She loves ballet. She loses her underpants. She swings on the syringa tree. She blurts out whatever she’s thinking (“South Africa has no fucking water!”). Wise's polished South African accent, her exaggerated facial expressions, and her charming childish demeanor are irresistible. Even when the story becomes difficult to follow, you cannot look away from her.
Wise becomes an adult in the second act, and despite the years, she still has a lot of “little girl” left in her character. Elizabeth the adult is married, a mother, and living in the United States. “Free.” “Brave.” But she's still full of the fire of her childhood.
Caitlin Wise's performance as Lizzie/Elizabeth is a rare theater experience. It was just a few minutes after the curtain went up that it dawned on me. I was in the presence of excellence. Not just talent. Not just skill. I was witnessing theater at the level of "art." Sometimes theater entertains, but at its best, it surpasses entertainment and becomes a profound artistic experience. Wise surpasses entertainment. She is an artist. I can offer no higher praise.
|Portland Thomas (Salamina and others).|
Thomas provides an understated dignity to the story, creating a sharp contrast to Lizzie’s exuberance. There’s an enduring bond between the two women who couldn’t be more culturally different. Thomas transcends those differences with a basic humanity that we all share.
Director Tosin Morohunfola pushes his actors to their limits, and they respond with unforgettable performances. His staging of the final scene is stunning. It’s a wordless, dreamy aerial ballet; the actors float by, synchronized souls under the syringa tree. It is one of the most powerful and memorable scenes I have seen on any stage.
|L-R: Portland Thomas, Caitlin Wise.|
Don’t expect to just sit back and be entertained at The Syringa Tree. You need to engage with the story, the actors, and the script to find the beauty and wisdom of the experience. I can guarantee that you will be richly rewarded for the effort. Just as I did, you will find yourself in that rarest of events: undeniable artistic excellence.
The Syringa Tree is not just a show I’ll remember for a long time. Rather, it’s a show I will never forget.
The Syringa Tree is suitable for teens and older.
For more information on apartheid in South Africa, see these links:
4. Nelson Mandela.
5. Desmond Tutu.
6. End of Apartheid.
This show closes on August 26, 2017.
Photo Credit: Creede Repertory Theatre and John Gary Brown, photographer.
Director: Tosin Morohunfola
Scenic/Lighting Design: Matthew Schlief
Costume Design: Asa Benally
Sound Design: Becca Pearce
Dialect Coach: Rebecca Bossen
Trapeze Choreographer: John DiAntonio
Dance Choreographer: Bethany Eilean Talley
Stage Manager: Aaron McEachran
Dance Captain: Nia Sciarretta*
Asst. Stage Manager: Lucas Bareis-Golumb
Elizabeth and others: Caitlin Wise*
Salamina and others: Portland Thomas*
*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.