At Totem Pole Playhouse, `Sylvia' has its day

Touching play about man and dog's relationship doesn't stray from being a delight

Theater Review


FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. -- "A man and his dog -- it's a big thing," a character cautions in A.R. Gurney's Sylvia.

The title character of this 1995 play is, in fact, a dog. But as Carl Schurr's production at Totem Pole Playhouse makes unmistakably clear, Sylvia is about more than just a man and a dog.

It's about midlife crises, jealousy, the empty-nest syndrome and marital discord; there's even a touch of feminism.

The plot is relatively simple. A middle-aged New York currency trader named Greg finds an abandoned dog -- with "Sylvia" on her collar -- in Central Park and brings her home. The kids are off at college. His wife has embarked on a new career. And he's increasingly dissatisfied at work.

Greg wants to keep the dog. His wife is completely opposed.

The portrayal of the dog is the most delightful aspect of Gurney's play. No Disney-fied plush costumes here. Instead, Shirleyann Kaladjian makes her first appearance in jeans with knee pads, a baggy brown sweater and a black dog collar with a red tag. Her hair is in pigtails, and she walks upright.

That walk, however, is more of a loose-limbed hop. And Kaladjian's expression -- at least toward Greg -- is one of exuberant, wide-eyed, unabashed love. The actress has clearly spent some time observing dogs; when she rests her head on Greg's knee, she becomes more spaniel than human.

Did I mention that Sylvia talks?

People have a tendency to anthropomorphize pets, and Gurney gives that full rein here, without descending into sugary cuteness. Sylvia has done her time on the streets, and she's not taking any guff -- particularly from Greg's wife, Kate. In demonstrating the impact an outsider can have on a long-term marriage, Gurney casts Sylvia as "the other woman," shamelessly stealing Greg's affection away from Kate.

Kate is portrayed by Deborah Hazlett, a resident company member at Everyman Theatre and an actress who has appeared at Totem Pole twice before. Unlike Greg, who finds himself at loose ends in midlife, Kate has created an exciting new track for herself teaching Shakespeare in the city.

Literate and poised, Hazlett's Kate unpretentiously peppers her conversation with Shakespeare quotations, but she is also becoming increasingly unhinged by the wedge Sylvia is driving into her marriage. When an old friend comes to visit, Kate can't stop breaking into outbursts about Sylvia -- "She drinks from the john, you know!" Hazlett delivers these like a woman obsessed with the discovery that her husband has taken a lover. At the end of the first act, she literally lowers herself to Sylvia's level, snapping at Kaladjian.

On the other hand, Alex Webb's Greg is unflappable. Sylvia has taught him to take time to smell the flowers, and the more his wife and others become convinced that Greg needs therapy, the calmer and more focused Webb becomes.

Greg and Kate do wind up seeing a therapist, and his awkward, over-the-top portrayal by Ray Ficca -- who also plays two other minor characters -- is one of the production's less successful elements. The therapist is a person of indeterminate gender, and Ficca seems unsure about how to play him/her. At it happens, Sylvia turns out to be a better therapist, which appears to be Gurney's point.

Edward Albee also has written a play about a man undergoing a midlife crisis and developing a relationship with an animal named "Sylvia." But Albee's Sylvia is a goat, and the relationship is considerably different. Where Albee strives to shock, Gurney strives for whimsy.

Yet Gurney's Sylvia ends up being whimsical and serious at the same time -- qualities touchingly conveyed under the direction of Schurr, the Baltimorean who serves as producing artistic director of Totem Pole.

At one point, Greg explains that the name "Sylvia" means "she of the woods." It's difficult to imagine a more sylvan setting than Totem Pole Playhouse in Pennsylvania's verdant Caledonia State Park. No wonder Sylvia feels right at home. Good dog. Good play.

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