Slice through the trunk of The Syringa Tree Sept. 14 and you'll find one ring to signify the unique solo show's one-year anniversary at Playhouse 91 in Manhattan.
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. The hit, with Capetown native Kate Blumberg playing the 28 roles first created by its playwright-actress, Pamela Gien, continues Off-Broadway.
Blumberg began Aug. 1, playing the multiple characters spanning four South African generations in The Syringa Tree.
South African Gien, the 2001 Drama Desk Award-winner in the category of Solo Performance, left the Off-Broadway hit July 31 to concentrate on a screenplay for the piece, a spokesman said. 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.
The Syringa Tree, winner of the 2001 Obie Award for Best Play, celebrated its 300th performance July 17. A year ago, 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. 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. The fall 2001 promotional material has testimonials from such varied viewers as O'Donnell, The Oprah Magazine, Robert Brustein of New Republic and actress Hilary Swank. John Simon, the notorious cranky critic of New York magazine, wrote a love letter of a review.
The play is "the story of an abiding love between two families, one black, one white, and the two children who are born into their shared household in the early 1960s in South Africa," according to production notes. "Seen first through the eyes of a six-year-old child as she tries to make sense of the chaos and magic of her world, the play follows their destinies through four generations, from early apartheid to present-day free South Africa."
The play premiered at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre Feb. 18, 1999, with Matt Salinger producing, and underwent some revisions for Off-Broadway. Salinger continues as producer.
Larry Moss stays on as director from the ACT production and is aided by a team of designers that include Kenneth Foy on sets, Bobby Pearce 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