Tuesday, November 13 , 2018, 3:10 pm | Fair 72º


‘The Syringa Tree’ a Singular Success

All by herself, Shannon Koob runs up a score of star performances in Ensemble Theatre production.



By Margo Kline

Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Syringa Tree, which opened Saturday at the Alhecama, is a one-woman show, peopled with 24 separate and distinct characters.

Written and originally performed by Pamela Gien, the Ensemble production stars the young and tremendously gifted Shannon Koob. Her stage and television resume shows an eclectic list of credits, from Yale repertory to the HBO hit, The Sopranos.

In The Syringa Tree, Koob portrays a 6-year-old white girl in 1963 South Africa and a cornucopia of others: black, white, young, old, female, male. Her main character, Elizabeth Grace, begins as the “hyper-active” child and, in the course of the evening, grows to the adult woman living in Pasadena with her own child and husband.

But it is as Elizabeth Grace, the child, that Koob shines brightest. She is by turns gawky, charming, a nuisance and a sweet, caring soul.

Among the other characters Koob brings to life are:

• Salamina Mashlope, 39, her family’s Xhosa maid and Elizabeth’s nanny

• Moliseng Elessebett Mashlope, Salamina’s daughter

• Dr. Isaac and Eugenie Grace, Elizabeth’s parents

• John Grace, Elizabeth’s younger brother

• Dominee Hattingh, a Dutch reformed minister

Koob invests these and the host of other characters with different voices, mannerisms, attitudes and foibles. The topic is apartheid, South Africa’s institutional racism that finally came to an end 30-some years after this play’s beginning.

Koob is small, slender and young. She has an astonishing range of voices here, as well as a variety of accents, including those of Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu black South Africans.

She can also conjure up her dignified doctor father, her sweet, anxious mother, the warm but volatile Salamina, the pinched and judgmental Dominee and all the rest.

Full marks also go to the play’s director, Michael Evan Haney. He has kept the pace brisk, while allowing for the different characters’ speech patterns and paces. At a running time of nearly two hours, without an intermission, The Syringa Tree seems to fly by.

The mood of the piece is also sustained by the scene design, from Narelle Sissons; the costumes, by Elizabeth Eisloeffel; and especially the lighting, by James Sale, and the sound design, by Chuck Hatcher.

In New York, this play won an Obie for best play of 2001, a Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance, the Outer Circle Critics Circle Award for outstanding solo performance, a Drama League honor and a nomination for the John Gassner Playwriting Award.

Gien, according to the program notes, has been commissioned by Random House to turn her play into a novel. She is also writing it as a screenplay.

The Syringa Tree will be at the Ensemble in the Alhecama Theatre through April 20. It is a very fine work.

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