Ottawa, ON, Sep 21, 2009 — The Great Canadian Theatre Company has opened their season with The Syringa Tree running through October 4. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has this review.
THE SYRINGA TREE, the award-winning one-woman play by Pamela Gien has opened the season at GCTC. The playwright grew up in South Africa during the height of apartheid. Begun as an acting class exercise, her semi-autobiographical play moves from early apartheid to the present day. It's a portrait of two families - one black, one white - and their relationships. Although there are twenty-four characters in the play, the story is told largely through the eyes of six-year-old Elizabeth, often from her refuge in the syringa tree behind her house.
Robin Fisher's costume design works very well for the many characters. Her set design consists largely of an irregular platform reminiscent of ochre stone, backed by a black cyc and scrim topped by cloud-like swags. The only set piece is Elizabeth's swing. Jock Munro's subtle lighting evokes the very air of South Africa.
Marc Desormaux has composed lovely music for the play, making good use of the characteristic sound of a thumb piano. Not only his music, but his sound design as a whole is terrific. He and Jock Munro combine their talents to produce a magical thunderstorm, complete with slanting rain.
The lone actress, Patricia Fagan, moves from character to character with slight changes of body language and she changes dialects from South African to Afrikaans to Zulu with apparent ease. She's very believable as the adult characters, especially Elizabeth's black nanny, Salamina. Unfortunately Miss Fagan doesn't quite convince as six-year-old Elizabeth. Partly because of her graceful womanly frame, her body language doesn't seem appropriate and lacks a child's impulsive gawkiness.
Director Lise Ann Johnson has put together a beautiful physical production. Although I wanted a more believable young Elizabeth, the play still packs a powerful punch. It's a moving story of a child's lack of understanding of specifics, but very aware of living in a climate of fear. In the final moments, South Africa comes alive on the stage.
On a scale of one to five the Great Canadian Theatre Company's production of THE SYRINGA TREE gets four solar panels. For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.