By Pat Craig

Contra Costa Times

If you have any knowledge of acting and how it's done, you find yourself at first mesmerized by the sheer craft of Shannon Koob's bravura solo performance in Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree.

The slender woman in a flowing blue dress (by costume designer Elizabeth Eisloeffel) turns the intimate tale of South Africa, under the apartheid of the early '60s to the first democratic elections in 1994, into an athletic ballet where she dances and rapidly inhabits 28 different characters, sometimes changing in mid-sentence.

To up the ante, Koob plays characters that are both black and white, speak a variety of dialects and languages and range in age from very young to extremely old. The play runs an hour and 40 minutes, Koob is on stage the entire time, and there's not a drink of water in sight.

The story is a meandering reminiscence, told mainly from the perspective of Elizabeth Grace, first as an energetic 6-year-old and finally as a grown woman with a baby of her own. Her circle of friends includes the black servants in her home, particularly Salamina, who is charged with looking after her, and Moliseng, Salamina's young daughter.

There is also the family next door, headed by The Dominee, a minister who is the father of another friend, Loeska. The Dominee (the Afrikaans' word for minister) spends a lot of his non-praying time looking out to make sure everyone is obeying the laws of apartheid, and is eager to tell the authorities of any infractions.

The evil and violent specter of apartheid is ever present and close to the surface — even little children are aware of it in Elizabeth's world. But the horrors of the outside world play only a menacing counterpoint to the story at hand — the love, friendship and troubles of people living in close proximity under not the greatest of conditions.

Director Michael Evan Haney has the story unfold at a gentle pace, even though Koob is working like a sprinter to convey all the characters. What Koob does, however, is create realistic characterizations of even the smallest role, with a facial expressions, body posture or even a way of walking.

Narelle Sissons' set for The Syringa Tree is a simple affair that establishes various playing areas rather than specific furnishing and constructions. The back wall of the set appears to be large panels of rusting metal and an enormous rock pile in one corner that represent, rather than portray, the neighborhood. The only real set piece is a large wooden swing suspended from the ceiling on a pair of sturdy ropes.

Many of the effects are created with lighting (designed by James Sale) and sound (by Chuck Hatcher).

The arrival of The Syringa Tree Tuesday night was another addition to a remarkably rich collection of theater offerings by area companies: Center Rep already has another winner with A Number, also at the Lesher Center. Diablo Actor's Ensemble has a mighty production of Educating Rita in its small theater down Locust Street from the Lesher Center, and The Willows Theatre is producing the musical drama, Brimstone, in its Martinez cabaret space, the Campbell Theatre on Ward Street.


By Leeanne Jones


Diablo’s can’t-miss events of the coming week:
Center REP presents The Syringa Tree; Pleasanton’s Truffles, Tidbits, and Wine Tasting; Girls Night Out at Blackhawk Plaza; Smuin Ballet’s Fly Me to the Moon; and the Lunar New Year Bazaar.

The Super Bowl isn’t the only hot event happening this week. Check out an incredible one-woman show, a wine stroll through downtown Pleasanton, girls night out in Blackhawk Plaza, a Frank Sinatra ballet, and a street party to welcome the Year of the Tiger. Here are your Top Tickets…

Through February 27: The Syringa Tree Center REP presents Pamela Gien’s 2001 Obie Award–winning play about two families in 1960’s South Africa—one black, one white, and the two children that are born into their shared household. Astoundingly, all 28 roles are played by one actress: Shannon Koob. Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek, $18–$41, (925) 943-7469, lesherartscenter.org.


By Georgia Rowe


Solo plays are always risky – if the performer in question fails to connect with the script or the audience, the result can be a very long night indeed. The strength of The Syringa Tree, which opened Feb. 2 in a captivating Center REPertory Company production, is that Shannon Koob, playing 28 roles in Pamela Gien’s Obie Award-winning drama, breathes life into all of them. If her performance, which morphs through characters young, old, black, white, English, Afrikaans and others, never quite makes you forget that’s she’s the only actor onstage, she manages to create a distinct identity for each. That’s accomplishment enough in this moving coming-of-age story set in South Africa.

The play’s principal character and engaging narrator is Elizabeth. Six years old when the story begins, she’s the picture of white privilege. Her overworked physician dad and harried, often depressed housewife mother have insulated Elizabeth and her brother, John, from the injustices of apartheid. Cared for by her beloved nanny, Salamina, Elizabeth spends her days playing under the estate’s enormous syringa tree – a symbol of security and shelter, as well as history – with Salamina’s daughter, Moliseng, comfortable in the belief that their mutual affection makes them equals.

If the story is about the end of that dream, it’s also about the changes in South Africa itself. By the end of the 105-minute production, the Soweto riots have happened, apartheid has ended, and racial violence has claimed the lives of a number of Elizabeth’s family and friends. Now a young woman, Elizabeth has moved to California, married and had a child of her own. A return visit supplies a somber coda, as she faces the extent of her losses, and begins to comprehend what still remains.

Gien’s script is a marvel of narrative and nuance. The playwright grew up in South Africa – two of the characters are named for her grandparents – and her writing is filled with sensory memories: the smell of thunderstorms, the taste of candy “sweets” eaten on the back porch, the smoothness of mud floors on bare feet. Director Michael Evan Haney gives the play an evocative staging on Narelle Sissons’ rusty metal-and-rock set; James Sale’s lighting, Elizabeth Eisloffel’s costumes and Chuck Hatcher’s sound designs provide apt enhancement.

Gien also has a keen ear for the voices of her South African characters – children, servants, a prim schoolmistress, a disapproving preacher, an English-speaking black nurse who’s “more white than white.” Koob’s mercurial performance captures them all in deft strokes. But it’s her articulate, endlessly kinetic Elizabeth, telling much of the story from the vantage point of a rope swing suspended from the title tree, who proves an irresistible presence. If “The Syringa Tree” is a love letter to Gien’s childhood, Elizabeth makes an ardent messenger.

Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree continues in a Center REPertory Company production, through Feb. 27 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. 105 minutes, without intermission. For info: 925-943-7469, or go online.