Meg Roe stars in The Syringa Tree and plays 23 roles. Some actors struggle to play just one.

Second Tree time's the charm

Publication YearIssue Date 

You can never go home again." Sometimes you wouldn't want to bother, as home is often a horrible place filled with hardships that nobody really wants to go back to. However, it can be a pleasant place, chock full of happy memories that one longs to revisit. Alberta Theatre Projects now revisits a happy memory as they remount The Syringa Tree.

Originally debuting at ATP in Oct. 2005, The Syringa Tree (pronounced "sigh-ring-uh") tells the tale of Elizabeth Grace, from her childhood in South Africa onward. The inaugural Calgary performance was well received, to say the least, earning four Betty Mitchell Award nominations for excellence in theatre. Director Vanessa Porteous was nominated for her direction of the first mounting of The Syringa Tree and is back to try it all again.

"There were a lot of things about the play that made me fall in love with it," says Porteous. "The one thing I may say I thought it was an amazing expression of South Africa, which is such a fascinating country. More profoundly, the play has a very emotional impact. It's very moving. I think that the relationship between the daughter and the father and the sense of recalling your childhood and all of its joy and horror, those two aspects really touched me."

The first run of The Syringa Tree was met with a great deal of critical acclaim, particularly singled around actress Meg Roe. In one of the more challenging roles in Calgary theatre, Roe played 23 characters and won her second Betty Mitchell Award for her efforts. Porteous had previously directed Roe to her first award win for ATP's production of Proof several years previous and knew she was up to the challenge.

"Meg's a beautiful young actress who's played a lot of what we call ingenue roles in theatre," shares Porteous. "She's played Anne Frank, Juliet--young girls. She seems younger than she is on stage, but I'd seen her at Theatre Junction playing what we'd describe as character roles, where she plays the wacky secretary or the maid or a crazy old lady or a tough-as-nails journalist. I'd seen her do those roles, so I knew she had extraordinary range as a performer."

The return of such a beloved play to the stage of the Martha Cohen Theatre has led to some speculation: will the remount be anywhere near as good as the original run? When asked if the team feels any pressure to top themselves, Porteous feels they have to approach the play the way they did initially.

"Of course you do feel pressure, anyone would," she shares. "It's partly because you want to provide the right experience for the audience, the experience you know that they can have. You don't want to cheat them. You know what the potential impact of the show is. You don't want to cheat them and disappoint them but, basically, you can't think about that. You have to go at the production with courage and faith and trust, the way you did the first time."

Porteous feels the remount will be improved from the first run-through in a few subtle ways. The first-time audience member may not notice the differences, but those who caught the play in 2005 will see a few minor tweaks.

"The person who's coming to see the show for the second time, they'll notice it's the same set, the same costumes, the same sound cues, the same actress and, of course, the same script," says Porteous. "The lighting is quite similar, although I think we've had the chance this time around to finesse the lighting so that it's richer and deeper. I would say the same thing about the production as a whole. We didn't go out of our way to approach it differently, just to keep it fresh, but because it's our second time through and we're a little bit older as people, I think we're bringing just a little more experience to this situation."

In creative endeavours, including the theatre, it's rare that a production is remounted with much of the initial cast and crew intact. Porteous feels very fortunate to have been brought back by ATP to revisit such a successful show.

"I think it's really exciting to be having a chance to do this production again and to work with this extraordinary team of people," she says. "It's not just Meg; it's the designers and the stage management team. It's a rare privilege in the theatre to a chance to have another go at a project that you felt like you accomplished quite a bit [with] on the first go around and you're asked back to do it again."

Syringa Tree runs Apr. 1-20 in Martha Cohen Theatre.