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Sylvia
by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 6, 2019

Tim Naegelin, Kay Love, Susie Lawrence
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

It’s fitting that Stray Dog Theatre would be producing A. R. Gurney’s Sylvia, considering it’s a play about a stray dog. Or more precisely, a formerly stray dog who “adopts” a man and stirs up trouble between that man and his wife. It’s a comedy, with some serious moments, focusing on relationships between humans and their pets, and with one another. On stage currently at SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey, it’s a fun play with a an especially strong cast.

Sylvia has an intriguing conceit to start off with–the title character, a dog, is played by a human (Susie Lawrence). This is a deliberate choice, apparently, because of the frequent comparison’s between this dog’s relationship with Greg (Tim Naegelin), the man who brings her home and his relationship with his wife, Kate (Kay Love). Greg and Kate are recent empty-nesters, having just recently sent their youngest child off to college. Now living in a small apartment in New York City, the two seem to have different outlooks on life. Kate is excited about her job as a middle school English teacher, developing a curriculum to help her students learn Shakespeare. Greg, however, is tired of his job and not thrilled with his boss’s insistence on his going into a more “abstract” line of work for his company. We learn all this over the course of the play, through the couple’s interactions with one another and especially with (and about) Sylvia, with whom Greg develops an instant bond and who Kate sees as more of a threat, both to her relationship with Greg and to her plans for the future. Greg, meanwhile, is finding himself spending more and more time with Sylvia, pouring out his deepest thoughts to her even though she seems more interested in yelling at local cats and meeting other dogs in the park, where Greg meets Tom (Melissa Harlow), another dog owner who shares his book-learned “expertise” about dogs with Greg while their dogs play. Kate, in turn, shares her concerns with her socialite friend Phyllis and, eventually, a therapist named Leslie (both roles also played by Harlow), while Greg finds himself increasingly torn between his attachment to Sylvia and his commitments to Kate.

Gurney’s script is well-constructed, with some fun conceits, such as translating “dog-language” into English, such as when Sylvia “barks”, she doesn’t say “woof” or “arf”. Instead, she says “hey! hey!” The relationships between people and their pets are explored in various ways, as well as changing marital relationships, mid-life crises, career fulfillment and lack thereof, and more. There are some poignant moments, as well, although it’s a comedy and there are many laughs. The staging in this production is well-paced, making the most of the whole performance space as SDT does so well. The production values are simple and effective, with a colorful set by Miles Bledsoe that features a backdrop of the city, well-suited costumes by director Gary F. Bell, and effective lighting by Tyler Duenow.

The real highlight of this production is the cast. Naegelin and Love are both excellent in their roles, with Naegelin playing Greg as something of a man-child and Love conveying the right mix of exasperation and hope. They have believable chemistry, as well. Lawrence, as Sylvia, has many moments to shine, and her physicality and presence make the role believable. She’s not stereotypically “dog-like” in her movements most of the time, although she manages to convey the energy of an excitable canine with enthusiasm. Also outstanding is Harlow in an impressive triple role, managing complete characterizations of all three to the point of almost being unrecognizable between them. Her comic timing is also especially strong.

Sylvia is a play I think a lot of dog lovers will be able to relate to in one way or another. While not everyone gets attached the way Greg does, dog owners love their dogs and will understand some of the moments in this story. It’s also a credible portrayal of a long-term married couple that has to deal with challenges as their life circumstances change. It’s a clever idea for a play, and SDT has presented it with charm and energy. It’s a fun show from Stray Dog Theatre.

Melissa Harlow, Kay Love
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sylvia at Tower Grove Abbey until June 22, 2019

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