The Syringa Tree is a mighty strong plant. Pamela Gien's celebrated multigenerational Off-Broadway play about two families in apartheid South Africa has survived to play 500 performances as of March 9.
The production at uptown's Playhouse 91 went on hiatus Sept. 23, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, then returned Oct. 23. The Syringa Tree stars Capetown native Kate Blumberg in the role first created by Gien. Larry Moss directs. Blumberg plays 24 characters in the world of an English family in apartheid South Africa. The 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, traces the last 30 years or so of personal South African history.
Syringa plays Playhouse 91, 316 East 91st St. (between First and Second Ave.). For tickets call the box office at (212) 307-4100.
The Syringa Tree celebrated its one-year anniversary Sept. 14, 2001. The underdog show about two families, one black and one white, in apartheid South Africa, captured the hearts of its audiences from the beginning, even as cynics guessed the starless work would close after a few weeks.
South African Gien, the 2001 Drama Desk Award winner in the category of Solo Performance, left the Off-Broadway hit July 31, 2001, to concentrate on a screenplay for the piece, and appears in the current London staging. 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.
When it began, the play was not on anybody's radar as a possible yearlong hit. The intimate 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.
— By Christine Ehren
and Kenneth Jones and Robert Simonson