Compass Rose Theater’s production of “Sylvia”’ is a howl-out-loud, funny production of A.R. Gurney’s insightful 1995 play. As the play opens, you might question whether a script built around the relationship between a talking dog and a middle-aged man can work? Know that it does, and movingly so, in director Estelle Miller’s well-cast and effectively staged production now playing in Annapolis.
…a howl-out-loud, funny production…well-cast and effectively staged…a moving journey of self-realization.
This comedy, which was first produced Off-Broadway in 1995 and then on Broadway 20 years later, tells the story of Greg in the midst of his 22-year marriage to Kate. Greg’s children have left and he longs for meaning in his job—trading currency. One day, he brings home a dog. Sylvia, named by her prior owner, provides Greg with connection and self-worth in her loyal obedience. The story follows Greg’s journey as the audience determines “what is real” and how the love of a pet impacts his marriage and him.
As Greg’s canine companion, Allison Meyer’s Sylvia is boisterous, loyal, loving and, perhaps most importantly, she is cute. This last point is a key plot device for Gurney’s play, yet also perhaps ultimately a MacGuffin. The audience is drawn into Sylvia, initially dirty and in pigtails, and certainly later as Greg gets her groomed. Meyer gives a disarming puppy dog look. You get it when she says, “I will fetch as you are god.” It is a little line in this production, but Meyer is so heartwarming in her loyalty to Greg. Yet, ultimately, she is a dog.
Greg longs for this warmth and this connection. In an initial scene, this is conveyed nicely from Jim Murphy’s Greg. He is buttoned up in a suit, trembling, and explaining his needs to Kate. It is that tremble, that inflection in Murphy’s voice, which is so key. This mid-life dad has not fully realized his own needs. Susan Flynn’s costumes, which evolve for Greg during his journey with Sylvia, are not showy but they are effective plot devices throughout this production.
As his wife Kate, Michelle Wittrien is not the antithesis to Sylvia, but she is his wife. Wittrien, with her hair pulled back and wearing a light colored business suit, is believable as she moves assuredly across the stage. Kate worries about Greg’s relationship with his boss, Harold. After marrying Greg and raising her children, she is re-focused on her own career (and not as much on Greg). When Sylvia alters that steady reality of their lives, despite the meaning it gives to Greg, Kate is on the prowl for this pup.
When Greg takes Sylvia out for a walk, he meets Tom in the park. This encounter is a warning to Greg early on in the story. Tom sees him admiring his new pup and says, “When you give a dog a woman’s name…you begin to think of them as a woman.” Steve Castrodad Pinzer as Tom (and later Phyllis and Leslie), lacks none of Greg’s tremble. He sees Greg. Pinzer, clad in Giants football gear, does well conveying the requisite confidence of his character. When he warns Greg and directs him about Sylvia’s reproductive choices, you realize he knows something.
The stage on the third floor of Maryland Hall is small, but Miller has the characters moving nicely between transitions, indoors and outdoors, on the set designed Roger Paradise and David Chalmers. She, along with producer Barbara Webber, did a great job of casting and developed a chemistry among the actors. When Kate confronts Sylvia as a challenge to her marriage, she shouts “all you are is a male menopausal moment!” It is a great line from Gurney. Moments later when Kate gets down to Sylvia’s level, literally on all fours, it is a hilarious because of the way Meyer and Wittrien play off of each other.
“Sylvia” is a moving journey of self-realization and the journey is not just for Greg. Kate comes to appreciate the companionship and connection a pet can give—and everyone needs. That, with the self-awareness provided by a talking dog, Gurney has crafted a timeless story, beautifully showcased in this Compass Rose Theatre production.
Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
“Sylvia” runs through October 29, 2023 at Compass Rose Theater on the third floor of the Maryland Hall, 801 Chase Street, Annapolis, MD, 21401. For more information and tickets, call 410-980-6662 or go online.