Pamela Gien, the lauded 2001 Drama Desk Award winner for The Syringa Tree, her solo play about the lives of a white and black folks in apartheid-scarred South Africa, leaves the Off-Broadway hit July 31, making way for Capetown-born actress Kate Blumberg to step in.
South African actress-writer Gien is going off to concentrate on a screenplay for the piece, a spokesman said, but the show at Playhouse 91 on Manhattan's Upper East Side will go on, with Blumberg, an Atlantic Theater Company veteran, taking over the many roles in the cultural patchwork Aug. 1. Gien won the 2001 Drama Desk in the category of Solo Performance. The show celebrated its 300th performance July 17. The piece won the Best Play Obie Award in 2001.
The drama garnered largely positive reviews upon opening at Playhouse 91 Sept. 14, 2000, but since it slipped into New York with little publicity and an unknown star, a long run was not expected. However, after struggling for a number of weeks and playing to small houses, Gien's show began to develop a following, particularly among actors and celebrities, who cheered the actress' skill in embodying several disparate roles, including a young child, both her parents and her aged black nanny.
A turning point in the show's fortunes came when Rosie O'Donnell paid a visit in December 2000. Immediately after, the former Tony Awards host booked Gien on her talk show. Other stars have followed O'Donnell's lead and made the journey to Playhouse 91. Among them: Cherry Jones, Steven Spielberg, Paul Newman, Donald Sutherland, Mike Nichols, Arthur Miller and Stephen Sondheim. Since the beginning of the year, Syringa Tree has often sold out its performances. Blumberg has been an Atlantic Theater Company actress for the past six years, appearing in Sexual Perversity in Chicago, The Hothouse, Wolf Lullaby, Once in a Lifetime, Dangerous Corner, Blithe Spirit and The Women. She has also acted with the Annex Theater Company and Playwrights Horizons.
In Syringa (pronounced with a hard "g"), writer performer Gien takes on 28 roles spanning four generations of South Africa, from apartheid to freedom. The play, which premiered at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre Feb. 18, 1999, underwent some revisions for Off Broadway. Matt Salinger produces.
Larry Moss stays on as director from the ACT production and is aided by a team of designers that include Kenneth Foy on sets, William Ivey Long on costumes, Jason Kantrowitz on lights, and Tony Suraci on sound. Moss may sound familiar; he's the acting coach who helped Hilary Swank win her Academy Award for "Boys Don't Cry" and Michael Clarke Duncan's Oscar nominated performance in "The Green Mile" (to say nothing of Helen Hunt's Oscar-winning work in "As Good As It Gets").
Performances of Syringa play at Playhouse 91, 316 East 91st St. (between First and Second Ave.). For tickets call the box office at (212) 307-4100.
— By Kenneth Jones
and Robert Simonson