Theatre Review: If A Tree Falls – Absence Of Accountability, Or The Root Of Grief

June 20, 2022


If A Tree Falls / Directed by Janice Honeyman / The Theatre Linden, Johannesburg

Grief affects everyone in different ways and requires processing in different ways. Playwright Penny Kreitzer, a South African who moved to the US, lost her daughter in an incident involving a falling tree branch when the youngster was working as a camp counsellor, and was horrified at the lack of accountability for what happened, with the camp authorities appearing to accept the loss as a simple matter of statistics.

If A Tree Falls is Kreitzer’s tribute to her bubbly, creative daughter, as well as a expose of the sort of behaviour that made the girl’s loss so much heavier to bear and, as an added layer, a warning about the ways the environment continues to change and the effects – in this case deadly – that can have.

A clever set uses a backdrop comprising scores of vertical strips of fabric. On this are projected a range of textured artworks that support the mood of each scene – bright colours when the daughter is gleefully interacting with other people and the world around her; more muted designs when the script suggests sadness and with motifs representing a tree when the plot deals with that part of the story.

A superb cast is headed by Camilla Waldman as the mother, and bright, exciting newcomer Micaela Tucker as the daughter. Supporting this duo and each playing multiple roles (friends, camp officials, kids, lawyers, rabbis and more) are Gina Shmukler, Robert Hobbs, MoMo Matsunyane, Shelley Meskin and Russell Savadier, brilliant individual performers all and an adaptable ensemble in a production that requires regular entrances, exits and interchanges from different perspectives.

Stylised dialogue and the wide-eyed wonder of both the in-touch-with-the-universe

mother and daughter make some of the tone less than completely relatable, but the main threads of the piece – the brutal impact of the loss of a family member and the frustration of dealing with awful people who lack an iota of empathy – are, tragically, far too familiar. For the most part, then, the story is moving and compelling. Ultimately, though, it is perhaps a touch too long, but as the piece develops and is refined, that running time may tighten up slightly.

New venue The Theatre Linden has had new lights and sound and other stage structures added to its set-up for this show, adding to its already considerable appeal and providing an exciting glimpse of a new, post-Covid direction for Johannesburg theatre.