The Syringa Tree, the Off-Broadway solo show about one white family's South African experience — and the world of its black extended family — will close June 2, a few months shy of it two-year anniversary at Off-Broadway's Playhouse 91.
A two-year tour with 83 dates in place will launch this fall, traveling to not-for-profit regional theatres and commercial venues in the U.S. and Canada, producer Matt Salinger said. Larry Moss will again direct Pamela Gien's play. Auditions are ongoing and casting will be announced in early summer. The tour begins Oct. 3 in Palo Alto, CA.
By Sunday, Syringa Tree will total 586 performances and eight previews. The heartfelt 90-minute solo show, written and performed by Pamela Gien (and later starring the current Kate Blumberg) opened Sept. 14, 2000. It went on to win multiple awards including the Obie Award for the Best Play of the 2000-2001 season.
The work began in regional theatre, became a critical and word of-mouth sensation in Manhattan. Gien played the show earlier this year at the Royal National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre in London. A TV production starring Gien (shot on the Playhouse 91 stage) began airing in May on the Trio cable network (visit triotv.com).
Larry Moss directed the tale of multiple generations from the beginning. Producer Salinger said the New York run didn't make its investment back, due to many circumstances including the 9/11 attacks on New York City. The play will be published by Dramatists Play Service, and Salinger is allowing non-tour regional troupes to do the show on a case by case basis, making sure the company's quality is high and that resident productions don't interfere with his tour. Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park is doing its own production.
It's a sure thing that in coming years, if regional theatres can find a singular actress for the work, Syringa Tree has a huge licensing future.
TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA, will present The Syringa Tree Oct. 3-Nov. 3. The tour will also go to the Pasadena Playhouse, Seattle's ACT (where the work was first seen), Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere. Some commercial houses are mixed into the tour of regional theatres.
"What is new and novel and exciting is that it is going to all the prestigious nonprofit LORT houses around the country," Salinger said, adding that those audiences have been developed and are expecting an adventure such as The Syringa Tree.
The tour will travel with two actresses, a stage manager and a swing technical person. Other personnel will be provided by the resident theatres. At those theatres, the show will be offered as part of subscription seasons or as a bonus offering.
"I would like nothing better than to work on this for the rest of my years," Salinger told Playbill On-Line in early 2002. "Since becoming a producer, I've produced a lot of things that were more about business or were more about learning how to produce. I've always been looking for something of extraordinary quality that was worth all the pain and time and nightmare phone calls — and I finally found one. I'm not gonna let it go too quickly. I haven't made any money on this, and I need to. I'm also trying to learn from this. The lesson it's taught me is that I followed my heart and it's lead to all kinds of great things."
Salinger said there is still a perception by those who haven't seen the show that it's a political "South African play" that is more about message than entertainment. "I knew I was going to be battling that from the very beginning," Salinger said. "It has certainly lived by word of mouth."
The Syringa Tree, Gien's celebrated play about two families in apartheid South Africa, opened quietly in New York City Sept. 14, 2000, starring South African native Gien, playing 24 characters in the world of an English family in apartheid South Africa. The underdog show, told from the point of view of Elizabeth, a six-year-old child who doesn't yet understand the tensions and conflicts in the household shared with her parents, her brother and the beloved black nanny and her child, captured the hearts of its audiences from the beginning, even as cynics guessed the starless, 100-minute work would close after a few weeks.
Word-of-mouth (particularly from celebrities) and solid reviews fueled the box office, although the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York prompted a monthlong shutdown to allow New York theatregoers to get their equilibrium back.
Kate Blumberg, a South African native who has worked Off Broadway and is an administrator in the acting school of The Atlantic Theatre Company, took over the roles created by Gien Aug. 1, 2001.
After its New York debut, Gien won the 2001 Drama Desk Award in the category of Solo Performance, and a 2001 Obie Award for Best Play. She left the Off-Broadway hit July 31, 2001, to concentrate on a screenplay for the piece.
The work is a semi-autobiographical account of Gien's life. She first developed the story as a screenplay (which Salinger had read) and performed scenes from it in an acting workshop in the Los Angeles area. Director Larry Moss saw the potential for the scenes to be a one-woman work. Salinger agreed it could be a unique theatre experience. The play had its premiere at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in 1999.
The work is a labor of love of Salinger, who is known more as an independent film producer. He produced the video production of the play. It was filmed with three cameras over three days at Playhouse 91, starring Gien but without an audience. Salinger is also attached to the still-developing, fleshed-out feature-film screenplay of the story.
— By Kenneth Jones