20 June 2017

Sylvia Review: Great Performances of a Dysfunctional Trio

A.R. Gurney’s play Sylvia takes a unique look at the relationship between a man and his dog. And a man and his wife. And all the problems that can arise from trying to love both. The play is funny, touching, and occasionally disturbing, and West Virginia Public Theatre (in cooperation with the WVU College of Creative Arts) gives a fantastic rendition of Gurney’s show. Under the direction of Jerry McGonigle, the show is well worth seeing.

Sylvia focuses on an upper middle class couple named Greg and Kate, whose have sent their kids to college and moved to New York City. They both have good jobs and things are going well. But then Greg brings home a dog, named Sylvia. This wouldn’t necessarily be that much of a problem, except for two things: Kate absolutely doesn’t want a dog, and Greg becomes completely devoted to Sylvia. He misses work and social engagements, and under the weight of his neglect their marriage suffers. Kate becomes increasingly concerned about Greg’s affection for Sylvia, and even Tom, Greg’s dog-owner-psychology quoting friend, warns Greg that it’s a big risk to give a dog a female name. Oh, and to make matters worse, Sylvia is played by a woman.

The cast of the WVPT production is the best element of the show, giving strong performances all around. Cassandra Hackbart gives a vivacious performance as Sylvia, offering the highest level of energy as she navigates the character’s mercurial mood swings. One moment she is jumping all over Greg (Joseph Olivieri) totally devoted to him, then the next moment she is terrified of being sent to the pound, then the next she is screaming abuse and obscenities at an off-stage cat. Constantly running around the stage, Hackbart brings a lively humor to the show, particularly with the dance routine meant to impress Kate (Cathy O’Dell) after Greg brings Sylvia back from the groomer. Hackbart’s Sylvia is performed somewhere between a dog and a child: devoted, playful, loving, but also prone to tantrums, and quick to change her mind.

Olivieri and O’Dell offer well matched performances as Greg and Kate. Their chemistry perfectly conveys a loving couple, devoted to one another, but on the rocks—in Kate’s opinion because of Greg’s midlife crisis. Both characters are hard to fully like, and hard to fully dislike—there isn’t a clear villain here—and both actors have moments where we feel deeply for them and moments where we detest them. For instance, in many of her interactions with Sylvia, Kate comes across as a shallow, jealous, and even irrational opponent of the dog. But then when she opens up to her friend Phyllis (Joe Mortimer), we see the depth of her love for her husband and how painful their marital problems are for her. O’Dell’s best scene comes near the end, when Greg is about to take Sylvia to the suburbs and give her away. Despite her loathing for the dog, Kate is deeply conflicted in this moment, and O’Dell shows that conflict simply and subtly, but in an unmistakably powerful way.

Olivieri offers similar fluctuations as Greg, often coming across as a devoted owner who genuinely cares about his dog, but also reading as callous and self-centered in his interactions with Kate. Greg is trying to find himself, rethinking/abandoning his job, finding a new lease on life through his relationship with Sylvia, and experiencing a midlife disillusionment with his existential condition: as he tells Sylvia, he’s facing either “the anxieties of late middle age or the disillusionment of late capitalism.” Olivieri shows these conflicting uncertainties through the confusion he brings to the character—the inability to get control of his excessive affection for his dog, punctuated by brief glimpses of the shambles his marriage and professional life are rapidly becoming. But even in his relationship with Sylvia, Greg is not always admirable. He willingly accepts that he’s a hero who saved her life, and even accepts it when Sylvia deifies him.

The fourth actor in the contingent is Mortimer, who plays all three of the minor roles: Tom the psychology quoting dog park denizen, Phyllis the snobbish alcoholic socialite whose husband has developed an unusual fondness for gold fish, and Leslie the androgynous therapist who recommends Kate get a divorce and shoot Sylvia. Mortimer is the comic relief of the play, performing these absurd roles with the most blatant humor of any performer. His dynamic performances both take us out of the immediate triad of Sylvia-Greg-Kate, and also offer an almost choric commentary on the main action of the play. For instance, Tom warns Greg about becoming too attached to Sylvia, particularly giving her a female name, but then another book he’s read suggests that their love for their dogs (to the exclusion of their wives) is genetic and therefore can’t be helped. These different tensions and ideas illuminate the main action of the show.

Through the prism of Greg’s relationship with Sylvia, Gurney explores a number of dynamics and problems, including issues of interpersonal relationships, the human divide from nature, and finding/forming one’s identity. The play challenges what it means to love, and to sacrifice for those we love. It also asks how we find meaning, happiness, and connection in the world—how do we find what makes us happy and balance that with making those we love happy?

The play runs 21-25 June at the Gladys G. Davis Theatre in the Creative Arts Center on WVU’s Evansdale Campus.
Performances begin at 7:30 PM on the 21-24 June and 2 PM on the 24-25 of June.
Tickets can be purchased by calling 304-293-SHOW, at a WVU box office location, or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.
Tickets are $14-$26.