There is something incredibly rewarding about watching good people come together to put on a show. Elgin Theatre Company’s stirring production of A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia is exactly this kind of production.
Elgin Theatre Company has a long history as a vital member of the suburban Chicago theater circuit. Their general approach is to stress story and acting over sets and special effects. And, it’s an style that has worked well over the years.
Sylvia is part comedy, part love story, part friendship story, and part biting drama. In the hands of the right director and strong actors, Sylvia is a play that can move you. Such is the case for the Elgin Theatre Company mounting.
On the surface, Sylvia is a play about a dog and its owners. Greg, a middle aged salesman, discovers an abandoned dog while at the park. Greg is going through a midlife crisis of sorts, with he and his wife Kate having just moved from the suburbs to the city after the last of their adult children has moved out.
At a time when there is great uncertainty in his life, Greg clings to this new addition to the family. His wife Kate, however, is not so taken with the idea of adding a dog to their busy lifestyle.
The dog in question is Sylvia, a mutt that just wants to loved. Like any dog, or any human for that matter, Sylvia has many aspects to her personality. Some of those characteristics are endearing and lovable; others are behaviors that only an owner could excuse.
Sylvia the dog is played by a human, the wonderfully talented Elizabeth Dawson. The character exhibits K9 characteristics, but also engages in dialogue with her owners. That dialogue straddles the line between human and animal, making for both funny and hard to take emotionally strained moments.
The relationship between Sylvia and her owners is used to shine a light on many different issues including domestic violence, infidelity, empty nesting, racism, sexism, gender inequality, homelessness, reproductive rights, and dying.
Dawson provides a master class in acting as the title character. Much of the time the audience is playfully amused by Sylvia’s antics, but Dawson also is able to pull out all the stops and bring tears to the eyes of many in the audience as she embarks on dramatic monologues throughout the play – particularly at the end.
There is a lot of dialogue in this particular play, and the cast has to be commended for their energies studying those lines. Aside from Sylvia, much of the dialogue belongs to owners Greg and Kate.
John Frankenthal’s characterization of Greg is right on point. He is a kind owner who truly loves his dog, but is torn because he also loves his wife who is not particularly fond of the new arrival.
The most important quality for the character of Greg to work is kindness. At heart he is a kind person. And that is a quality that Frankenthal captures to perfection.
Greg’s wife Kate is a complex character. She is a good person dedicated to good causes. She loves her husband and her work. She’s doesn’t dislike dogs, but as far as she is concerned she and her husband have entered a new part of their lives that doesn’t have room for an obligation like a pet. She must be the heavy, without being a villain.
Gabrielle Cross does an excellent job capturing the conflicting emotions that face Kate as she tries to honor her husband’s needs while staying true to her own. Her delivery spans many emotions and Cross handles them all with aplomb.
As a new dog owner, Greg learns to make friends with other owners at the park. His friend Tom is an interesting fellow. Played by skilled character actor Richard Sherman, Tom is an example of what happens when a married man must chose between his wife and his dog. He also shows off a penchant for conspiracy theories – which can be both funny and troubling.
Mindy Kaplan plays the dual roles of Kate’s friend Phyllis and her therapist Leslie. Kaplan plays the comedy of the character to the hilt, as she hits upon subjects ranging from addiction to gender identity. Kaplan is just a doll and deserves praise for her ability to develop two completely different personas that are both vital to the action of the play.
The final member of the cast is the always impressive Andrew Ross, who provides sign language interpretation. This is a feature I love about Elgin Theatre Company.
Sylvia premiered in 1995 with Sarah Jessica Parker in the title role. It had its first Broadway production in 2015 with Matthew Broderick in the role of Greg. Much of the play stands strong to this day, however there is some text that is dated. Political references that may have seemed innocent in 1995, have far different connotations in today’s society.
Just because there are many comedic elements to the A.R. Gurney script, don’t be surprised that Sylvia does deal with some dicey issues and includes some very strong language and situations. But, that is often the sign of a good show. It’s a show that will make you think.
Frank Del Giudice is an accomplished director, with impressive professional credits spanning decades. With Sylvia, Del Giudice shows why he is considered one of the best in the area. He has created an intimate and moving production. The focus is on the actors and the dialogue, and it works.
Del Giudice is assisted by Beth Quigley, Fleurette Elia, and Nicole Lapas. The show is produced by Richard Grieger.
Sylvia plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM through February 19th at Elgin Art Showcase (164 Division Street – 8th floor in downtown Elgin, about an hour outside of Chicago). For tickets call (847) 741-0532 or visit www.elgin-theatre.org.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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