Review- Don Maslowski
I've seen a number of productions of "Slvia" since its debut in 1995, but not until I saw Isis Theatre Company's production did I understand what I would presume to be playwright A.R. Gurney's intent. Oh, I've followed the storyline and laughed a all the appropriate places, but this one is how I would envision Gurney himself directing it. It's full of nuance and depth, comedy and pathos. It's far-fetched and utterly human. That's saying something about a play whose main character is a dog.
Richard Holden and Michele Marsh shine as Greg and Kate, middle-aged empty-nesters who choose different paths to fill the void. Kate immerses herself into her academic career, into language and the works of Shakespeare. Greg un-immerses himself from his work, looking for something more real, more connected to the world. They are having their own personal mid-life crises, though, of course, each is blind to it.
Suzanne Avalon is Sylvia, a stray dog that Greg brings home. Notice the feminine name? Sylvia becomes " the other woman" in this marriage gone stagnant.
Gurney has fashioned the role to be played, not a la Disney, where animals take on human characteristics, but as a human who takes on a dog's. Avalon does it about as well as one can imagine, and that's important because that's what this play's all about: Imagining.
All canine owners, at one time or another, have uttered the profundity "If dogs could only talk!" Well Sylvia can. She up and greets a returning Greg with "I love you, I love you." She dives into Kate's friend Phyllis (Jeri Greene) with "Nice crotch here." When she barks, it's "Hey! Hey! Hey!" And she has some special expletives for the neighborhood cat.
As Gurney wanted, there's no doggie costume, only wardrobe suggesting changes in Sylvia's life. As a stray, she's tattered and disheveled. After a visit to a groomer's where it's discovered she's probably part French Poodle, she's all gussied up, complete with outlandish bow. After being spayed, she dons post-hospital pajamas Like I said, human.
This production is weighted with working film and television actors and is just the kind of thing many choose to involve themselves in to keep their skills honed. Any aficionado of the arts, whether passive or active, knows that nothing compares with the immediacy of live theatre. As an actor, you know immediately whether it's working or not. As an audience member, so do we. And this production works.
Holden and March intuitively mine the loving but troubled marriage of Greg and Kate with sensitivity and an honesty that smacks of realism, often to the point of uncomfortableness.
When they seem to have exhausted all compromise regarding Sylvia, you find yourself walking in their shoes. Their decisions become yours.
Avalon is an absolute joy to watch as Sylvia, the grain of sand in this marital shoe. Whether she's wiggling her bon bon with happiness or waxing eloquently on the merits of being Greg's "other", she imbues the role with charm, wit and wisdom.
There are some nice character roles in this show too, all capably handled. Kevin Speir is well cast as Tom, a fellow dog owner Greg meets on his daily visits to the park with Sylvia. He has a book for everything and a manly man's dog named Bowser who brings out the beast in Sylvia, no pun intended. Phyllis (Jeri Greene) is Kate's high socitey friend and quasi-teetotaling sounding board, though not necessarily the brightest candle on the birthday cake. Monica Reichl plays the asexual marriage counselor Leslie, to whom both Kate and Greg confide in with surprising results.
The acting in "Sylvia" is what one sometimes discovers, if one is lucky enough, in some small, savored off-off Broadway theatre. The direction by Sydney May Morrision is on the money and perfectly attuned to the small, rustic Idyllwild Town Hall.
This is the first mainstage production for this new Theatre Company - they previously mounted a one-act, "Sundance" by M.Z. Ribalow at Idyllwild's Cafe Aroma - and if this is any indication of what lies ahead, we and they have a bright future to look forward to. It's easily worth the drive to this enchanting mountain community, where the nighttime air is clear and you can see the stars shine, outside and on the stage.