In the sleeper success of the season, The Syringa Tree, Pamela Gien's one-woman show about life in South Africa, reached its 200th performance on March 31. 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 afterwards, 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. A spokesman for the show said a Wednesday matinee at 2 PM will be added beginning April 18 to meet ticket demand, taking the schedule from seven to eight shows a week. The play is expected to earn back its investment shortly.
Following the Off-Broadway run, Gien will take Tree to London and Cape Town. A movie and novelization of the story are in the works. *
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 is producing.
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."
Performances of Syringa play at Playhouse 91 (which housed the short-lived two week run of Straight-Jacket earlier this summer) located at 316 East 91 St. (between First and Second Ave.). For tickets call the box office at (212) 307-4100.
—By Robert Simonson