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A middle-aged man and his dog

The First Presbyterian Theater performs A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-08-30


Now that their two grown children out of the house, Greg and Kate are looking forward to enjoying all the rewards of a comfortable middle-class life, with enough time, enough money, and enough energy to do all those things they had always meant to do. For Kate, she finally completes her Master’s degree and is looking forward to teaching Shakespeare.

But just as Kate is flushed with enthusiasm about a new career and a new life, Greg is hit with a whopper of a mid-life crisis. He’s not happy with his job, and he feels “disconnected” and without purpose. It isn’t long before Greg finds a third party that he feels gives his life some sort of meaning…

That’s the set-up for A.R.Gurney’s highly-acclaimed and popular play Sylvia, which is being performed at the First Presbyterian Theater through mid-September. You might think you know what’s coming, but Gurney throws in a twist.

“It’s a coming of age story about a boy and his dog,,” says director Renae Butler. “Except the boy is a middle-aged man going through a mid-life crisis. Some people buy sports cars, some people run away with their grandchild’s nanny. He finds a dog in a park and brings the dog home.”

The dog is Sylvia, and playwright A.R. Gurney has fun with the way people will transfer their thoughts and feelings to their pets by portraying the character as a human (in fact, Sylvia was originally played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who won a Tony for it). “People talk to Sylvia and she speaks,” says Butler. “If you’ve got a dog and they look at you, you swear you know what they’re thinking. In Sylvia, you hear what the dog is thinking.”

Anyone who has seen a lot of Fort Wayne theater over the years will recognize some of the names in Sylvia, like Molly McCray, Kate Black, and David McCants. “We’ve got some old-timers in this one,” jokes Butler. “I’ve been encouraged to find a different word. I’ve been told to use ‘seasoned veterans.’”

“It’s a very cool role,” says Molly McCray, who plays Sylvia. “I’ve never played livestock before. Well, perhaps a sheep in the school play when I was five. But I don’t have to wear a dog suit from Stoners and crawl around on the floor and bark like a dog. (Portraying Sylvia as human onstage) invokes qualities that I think a human sees in animals, especially a pet.”

As you might guess, Sylvia is a pretty funny play. Greg and Kate encounter a number of oddball characters while they try to deal with Greg’s crisis. Tom (played by Scott Rumage) is a fellow dog owner who Greg meets in the park, one of those talkative know-it-alls full of facts and skewered advice (like never give a dog a human name). There’s also the marriage counselor, Leslie, who, according to actor Grace Rumage, is like a Mel Brooks’ version of a Freudian therapist.

But there’s far more than just comedy to Sylvia. “This play is everything that theater ought to be,” says Kate Black, who plays Greg’s wife. “This play is warm, humorous, entertaining. It’s fun, but it’s also thought-provoking and touching, because it is about the human condition. He (writer A.R. Gurney) understands relationships so well, and he has such a wonderful sense of where humor grows out of a relationship.” And Black should know what theater “ought to be”; she estimates she’s been in over 60 productions, and ranks Sylvia as one of her favorite non-dramas.

During Sylvia, Greg and his wife are guided through a variety of characters to connecting again, to Greg feeling vital and a contributing member of society. It’s a pretty remarkable play, managing the rare trick of balancing real humor with real insight, and avoiding becoming too sentimental. “I like plays or films that make you think afterwards,” says Butler. “Sylvia does that, but it’s not a heavy drama. It’s touching, but very, very funny and clever.”

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