A Friendly Canine Sparks Humor And Reflection In Elements' 'Sylvia'

By: Ellen Petry Whalen

Topics: Local Theater

Sarah Hale as the title character in Element's “Sylvia.” COURTESY PHOTO

 Sadly, the prolific American playwright A. R. Gurney died in June at the age of 86. Elements Theatre Company’s “Sylvia” is a fitting tribute to the man who liked to poke fun at the anxieties and foibles of the upper-middle class.

“Sylvia” is an unusual love story. It centers around a stray dog named Sylvia (played by a younger adult female), who chooses her new owner Greg, as he dozes in a New York City park. Greg is quickly taken with her, and enthusiastically brings her back to his apartment. However, his wife, Kate doesn’t share his fondness for the poodle mix.

The couple has recently moved into the city, now that their children are in college. Kate is relishing her “freedom” and time to whole-heartedly focus on her new career — promoting the power of Shakespeare’s words to under-privileged junior high school students.

In complete contrast, Greg is struggling with finding meaning in his work and insists his latest promotion to currency trading is too “abstract.” He desires something “real” and fulfilling, and Sylvia’s unconditional love and connection to nature completely fill this need.

Sylvia is spiritedly played by Sarah Hale, whose energy and zeal mirrors that of a young canine. She is mostly on all fours throughout the show, hopping on couches (much to Kate’s disgust) and nuzzling up to Greg, unable to control her dog-like impulses. She verbally communicates her every feeling, quickly expressing her love for Greg, and claiming that he is her “god.” She and Greg have some insightful conversations, but she never feels much need to dig deeply, nor does she linger too long in thought, living happily in the present.

Peter Haig plays Greg with intensity, whether he is communicating his disdain for his boss or his feeling of being reborn through Sylvia. He cannot contain himself around Sylvia, and he indulges her, catering to her every wish. He doesn’t understand why his wife feels threatened by his newfound love for Sylvia, even when he fawns over the dog after she is professionally groomed. Continuously optimistic, he keeps trying to get Kate to accept Sylvia.

The empty-nester Kate is humorously played by Blair Tingley, as she wavers between a no-nonsense academic and a neurotic wife. Jealous of her husband’s new relationship with Sylvia, she equates the dog to the other woman. She thinks Greg has lost his mind and only agrees to keep Sylvia for a short trial period.

Kyle Norman plays three different roles: Tom, a devoted dog enthusiast; Phyllis, a snooty and well-connected New Yorker; and Leslie, a purposely androgynous therapist, who Kate insists Greg see. On opening night, the audience laughed uproariously as Norman stole the show with his over-the-top portrayal of the latter two characters.

Danielle Dwyer deftly directs this comedy about mid-life transitions and tensions. This is the second Gurney play she has directed for Elements, with the first being “The Dining Room.”

The scenic design by Lindsey Kanaga and Sharon Hunter includes a posh apartment, a city park, and an office setting. What is most striking are the multitudes of multi-colored and various-sized windows hanging from the black backdrop. They are suggestive of other apartments surrounding Greg and Kate’s, but they also remind the audience that they are voyeurs peering in on the current strife unfolding in the middle-age couple’s life.

Gurney wrote honestly about how he saw and related to life, especially as he aged, so the widows also represent a glimpse into the award-winning playwright’s soul, through Elements’ stellar portrayal of “Sylvia.”




At Elements Theatre Company, Rock Harbor, Orleans
Through Aug. 20
Information and reservations: 508-240-2400