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 Syrin- ga 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.

Contact Pat Craig at pjcraig495@yahoo.com.

THEATER REVIEW
  • WHAT: Center Repertory Theatre Company presents "The Syringa Tree," by Pamela Gien
  • WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 27. Additional 2:30 p.m. matinees Feb. 20 and 27
  • WHERE: Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust Street, Walnut Creek
  • RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 40 minutes
  • TICKETS: $36-$41; 925-943-7469, www.lesher
    artscenter.org.