Newsflash: acclaimed ATP play still very good

By Ryan Pike

Two and a half years ago, Alberta Theatre Projects’ presentation of The Syringa Tree received a great deal of clamour and acclaim. At the time, Gauntlet reviewer Kyle Francis concluded the play was worthy of “every little bit of praise it gets,” singling out the performance of Meg Roe specifically.

A great deal has changed since the fall of 2005. The Canadian dollar has leapt forward in value. Canada elected a new prime minister. Several thousand students have received degrees from the University of Calgary. Several million children have been born worldwide. One thing that has not changed, though, is the quality of The Syringa Tree.

Based on the childhood of playwright Pamela Gien in South Africa, The Syringa Tree follows the life of Elizabeth Grace. The play deals not only with the various trials and tribulations of being a six-year-old girl–or raising one–but also touches on various issues plaguing South Africa during the play’s timeframe, namely the racist apartheid system. While it’s easy for one of the underlying messages, that racism is bad, to come across as preachy, The Syringa Tree effectively grounds its morals in human interaction.

To be blunt, none of what The Syringa Tree accomplishes would be possible without Meg Roe. Playing 23 characters without the aid of makeup or costumes, Roe utilizes her voice and movement to make every single character distinct. Despite scenes with multiple characters often requiring Roe to change voice pitch, posture or physical position frequently, none of the interactions are muddled and the audience has a clear idea of what’s going on throughout the duration. Once again, The Syringa Tree is a wonderful showcase for Roe and the two-time Betty Mitchell Award winner should immediately be considered a strong candidate for a third.

If there are any qualms about The Syringa Tree, they likely revolve around the play’s resolution. While the bulk of the play takes place when Elizabeth is six years old, the events suddenly jump decades into the future to chronicle the later parts of Elizabeth’s life. The jump itself is a bit jarring for a play that was so vested in the perspective of a precocious six-year-old girl. It’s a minor quibble, as Roe quickly communicates the passage of time and makes it clear that the audience is now watching an older, more mature Elizabeth.

Alberta Theatre Projects has begun to wind down their latest season by playing to their strengths, presenting a mature, yet inventive, play in a sensational manner. Moreover, they did so in the face of lofty expectations that have only grown in the years since the first run of The Syringa Tree. The cast and crew should be commended for their work, if not by awards committees, then by grateful theatregoers.

The Syringa Tree runs until Sun., Apr. 20.