AT THE ARENA: Lee-Ann van Rooi appears in Henrietta with Love.

HENRIETTA, WITH LOVE. Written by Peter Voges. Directed by Sandra Temmingh, with Lee-Ann van Rooi. At Artscape Arena Theatre until Saturday. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews

A LILTING voice singing It is well with my soul drifts across a darkened stage as Henrietta slowly takes her place at a battered Formica table. Behind her hangs a wedding dress and a formal cerise pink outfit. Other items of clothing are placed on the stage – an army uniform on a dumb valet, a suit jacket on a coat stand and two pairs of matching cerise pink shoes. The stage is already set with questions and slowly Henrietta reveals the answers.

The Formica table and three matching chairs bring back memories of meals at grandmother’s kitchen table. The careful place setting complete with napkin rings hark back to a time when families sat down and shared meals and their lives together. Henrietta welcomes her husband home from World War II, and as she recalls walking past The Majestic Bioscope on their way to the Ex Serviceman’s Club she recreates a sense of time and place with snippets of sounds and vivid visual memories.

The tentacles of the war reach far in to their personal lives, and while the Cape Corps was one of the South African military units with the oldest history, its members were woefully neglected by the government on their return from the war. Henrietta recounts her very personal memories, but they are closely linked with a broader history of South Africa. Her fond recall of a visit to her sister’s home in Protea Village, Kirstenbosch are tempered by the pain of the forced removal from areas which took place in the 1960s.

Apartheid laws weren’t only responsible for forcibly removing people. As her sister lost her home, Henrietta also lost her best friend to a system which arbitrarily classified people based on the texture of their hair and the hue of their complexion.

Henrietta grieves as she remembers and reminisces about the lives and places that she has lost.

Her friend Frieda is reminiscent of Betty Fourie, the character played by Liz Meiring in Cheaper Than Roses, written by Ismail Mohammed. Fourie recounts the complexity and personal consequences of the life of a so-called coloured women who “played white”, while Henrietta’s account explores the impact on the lives of those who are left behind.

Part of the beauty of Henrietta, With Love is the simple actions, recognizable to anyone who has lost someone dear, with which love is made visible. As she buries her head in a suit jacket and breathes in the scent of someone no longer there, that final attempt to recall someone’s presence, to capture some earthly reminder of their being is rendered with aching authenticity.

That desperation when the scent of a loved one is no longer accessible is so palpable in that small gesture. Each one of her actions is considered and while she seems to ramble down an incoherent path of memories, when her destination is revealed, it is not wholly unexpected but still deeply moving.

The picture of her daughter’s wedding, her sister’s “never say die” hat, which upstages her wedding outfit, and the fraught logistics of a family wedding provide moments of light relief. With his debut script delivered at the age of 79, Voges has captured the vignettes of family life with beautiful accuracy and one hopes this will not be his final foray as a playwright.

The script explores loss with the added significance of the acknowledgement of the deliberate pain inflicted by the state, as well as that caused by the random nature of fate.

Van Rooi is a remarkable actress and her talent seems particularly well suited to one-woman shows. Her performance in Woman Alone at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown was riveting. The true story of a South African nurse captured in Saudi Arabia will be performed at The Baxter at the beginning of September and will give audiences another opportunity to experience her talent.

Journalist and TV presenter Stephen Colbert, who at the age of 10 experienced the death of his father and two brothers, when asked if grief dissipated replied, “No. It’s not as keen. Well, it’s not as present, how about that? It’s just as keen, but not as present. But it will always accept the invitation. Grief will always accept the invitation to appear. It’s got plenty of time for you.”

Henrietta invites us to share in her grief and the audience accepts the invitation as they follow her into the vortex of memory and loss created with a poignant tenderness that lingers along with the fading notes of It is well my soul.

l Tickets R80, unreserved seating. Book: 021 421 7695, 0861 915 8000, Shoprite and Checkers outlets. Information: www.artscape.co.za