Summer Repertory’s fourth production, “Sylvia,” caused some uproarious laughter as it opened at the Newman Auditorium on the Santa Rosa Junior College campus on Tue., July 9. A. R. Gurney’s 1995 comic masterpiece, reprised by SRT, has lost little in a quarter of a century with its humor and its message.
The message, delivered through all of the characters, it’s never too late to give one’s life meaning, suggests a person, even a dog, is never too old to fulfill yearnings. Each of the six characters makes that quest in his or her way.
Director Shad Willingham (you may have seen him act at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), a professor from Cal State Northridge and an actor who has performed throughout the world, guided this production of “Sylvia” to elicit humor from all four of the actors in all parts of the play. Even though his life has been fulfilled through acting and directing and teaching drama, he realizes that others are not so lucky. Thinking of the characters in “Sylvia,” Willingham said, “Some poor souls spend their lives searching for that ‘thing’ that defines them, giving their life meaning and makes them whole.”
No dark quest, six characters in comedic and unlikely circumstances make this search while providing maximum laughs per scene. Greg (Carson Cerney) and his wife Kate (Sommer O’Donnell) left their empty nest in suburbia to pursue some midlife goals in Manhattan. Greg now works for a financial concern in the big city while Kate develops Shakespeare curriculum for middle schoolers. Sylvia (Madison Dietrich), a lost dog, searches for the master that she can idolize.
Complications arise when Greg brings Sylvia home to the Manhattan apartment. Kate has just raised a family and wants to focus on her career. Greg seeks to avoid the competitive corporate life; he would rather focus on his relationship with Sylvia.
Visual and physical humor develop from the start as a young woman plays the part of a dog that can actually speak its thoughts. Dietrich creates the behavior of a dog with every gestures and movement as she desperately attempts to please her new master, Greg.
Greg’s obsessiveness with Sylvia drives him to the point where he neglects his wife and his job. He often spoils Sylvia when he should be training her for her urban life. Kate, obsessed with her career teaching Shakespeare, often runs out quotes from the Bard to comment on particular situations. She borrows from “Hamlet” to give training advice to Greg when she says, “I must be cruel only to be kind, ‘Hamlet,’ Act I.”
Later, as Greg’s lies and evasive responses multiply, Kate borrows from Henry IV, Part 1 when she says, “Lord, this world is given to lying.” Three more Shakespearean quotes make it clear that Kate’s scholarship is somewhat obsessive and her quotes make light mockery of herself as well as the situation. For instance, when the enmity between Kate and Sylvia is no longer hidden, Kate looks at the dog and pronounces Hamlet’s insight given to Polonius that he recognizes his enemies: “I know a hawk from a handsaw.” The first act concludes with Kate and Sylvia looking at each other as Kate says, “It’s a fight to the finish.”
A fourth actor, Will Fletcher, and three other characters played by Fletcher, Tom and Phylis and Leslie, join the fun throughout the play. Each has his or her own quest for fulfillment. Fletcher nearly steals the show through his comedic interpretation of each of these people who have the appearance of having it together when each exposes personal lack of fulfillment.
Plenty of time left to get in on the fun as “Sylvia” runs through Sun., Aug. 4. For tickets, contact SRT at (707) 527-4307 or go online: theatrearts.santarosa.edu.