THE SYRINGA TREE by Pamela Gien, directed by Larry Moss, with Caroline Cave and Yanna McIntosh. Presented by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). Runs to March 20, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $20-$77, some rush seats and Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNN
The history and horrific effects of apartheid get a human face in Pam Gien 's one-woman, multi-character play The Syringa Tree. At the centre of the tale is the white Elizabeth Grace, whom we meet as a six-year-old in Johannesburg in the early 60s. Her parents, who find apartheid heinous, employ the Xhosa woman Salamina as Elizabeth's nanny and help Salamina hide her daughter, Moliseng, who is not allowed to live in the Graces' house because she has no government-issued pass. Salamina is the human equivalent of the berry-laden syringa tree that stands in the Graces' yard, a symbol variously of comfort, shelter and escape.
Through Elizabeth's eyes, we see the physical and emotional havoc the sociopolitical system inflicts on blacks and liberal whites. Though events and disgust with that system drive Elizabeth to leave South Africa, changes both political and personal draw her back home. The story's narrative, leaping around in time, has a strongly subjective thrust that takes a while to get accustomed to.
In the CanStage production, Caroline Cave and Yanna McIntosh alternate as the solo performer, and each gives a legitimate reading of the material and its 20-odd characters - black and white, young and old, threatening and compassionate, all individualized vocally and physically.
Cave creates a lighter, more fragile and playful Elizabeth, whose childlike innocence is bound to be hurt by the world around her. McIntosh's Salamina is the weightier in her humanity; she's a nurturer who, despite her fear of the authorities, never stops caring about those in her charge. Cave adds a touch of anger to Salamina, an unspoken frisson that later issues forth as a sense of pride.
Most importantly, each captures, in her own fashion, the moving tale's emotional power.