Going to the dogs: Two local theater troupes put on 'Sylvia'

Naples Players Jim Heffernan and Jessica Walck star in "Sylvia," on stage at Sugden Community Theatre in Naples.

Naples Players Jim Heffernan and Jessica Walck star in "Sylvia," on stage at Sugden Community Theatre in Naples.

Florida Repertory Theatre

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Sundays and select Saturdays and 7 p.m Sundays. Today through Jan. 23.

Where: Arcade Theatre, 2267 First St. Fort Myers

Admission: $39 to $44

Information: (239) 332-4488 or www.floridarep.org

Naples Players

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sunday. Wednesday through Feb. 5.

Where: Sugden Community Theater 701 Fifth Ave. S.

When: Naples Players, Jan. 12 to Feb. 5; Florida Rep, Jan. 7 to Jan. 23

Admission: $30

Information: 434-7340 or www.naplesplayers.org

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Full event details »

Every dog will have its day.

Or, in the case of “Sylvia,” its opening night.

Playwright A.R. Gurney’s comedy about a spunky stray taken in by two empty nesters and the subsequent fur that flies was first produced in 1995. The reviews were raves, and actress Sarah Jessica Parker — cast in the role of the titular dog Sylvia — earned a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play.

In Southwest Florida, “Sylvia” will enjoy two opening nights, as the Naples Players in Naples and the Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers will perform the play this month. The Players’ production runs Jan. 12 to Feb. 5; the Rep’s starts today and goes through Jan. 23.

Although the double production of “Sylvia” is a coincidence, it’s no surprise that both theatre companies have chosen the work. The play holds a strong allure for directors, actors and audiences, explains Megan McCombs, director for the Players.

“Each time, it’s been a huge audience favorite, I think for several reasons,” said McCombs, who has directed the play before. “One, it’s a play about having a dog come into your life. Anyone who has had a dog, or a pet, but especially a dog, can relate.”

Maureen Heffernan, director for the Florida Rep’s production, proudly counts herself in that category. Heffernan’s dog Chloe was found in a park — a quality she shares with Sylvia.

“I’m a person who never had a dog growing up, and had a little rescue poodle come into my life after I turned 50. It really gave a dimension to my life that I never imagined could be,” she said.

McCombs also appreciates the special — and sometimes curious — relationship people share with their pups.

“I have a dog, and I talk to my dog, and I know that the dog talks back to me,” McCombs said. “I took me a long time, because she is sort of a quiet dog. Now we completely understand each other.”

Sylvia, however, is not a shy sort of canine.

That, too, is part of what makes the work such a success and why it holds such an attraction for actors and directors, McCombs believes. The character of Sylvia is played by a young woman — Michelle Damato at the Rep and Jessica Walck at the Players — and the character behaves and dresses as a young woman would. Her outfits change to suit her doggy mood, but she is never clad in an actual dog suit. And she talks, just as we sometimes feel our dogs trying so hard to communicate with us.

Giving Sylvia such a human personality causes moments that are undeniably comedic — but also revealing for audiences and enjoyable for actors to portray. Sylvia’s adoptive owners are Kate and Greg, a middle-aged, middle-class Manhattan couple; Kate’s career is on the upswing, while Greg is increasingly dissatisfied at work. Also, their children are grown and have moved away from home.

It’s not long before Greg’s fondness for the adoring Sylvia quickly puts a strain on his marriage to Kate.

The fourth actor in the play always tackles three roles: Tom, a dog lover who Greg meets in the park; Phyllis, who is a friend of Kate’s; and Leslie, an androgynous marriage counselor who Greg and Kate go to see and who advises Kate to shoot Sylvia.

If it sounds like Sylvia is much more than a dog, well, there’s some truth to it.

“The patterns are all being thrown in to relief, into strain, and there’s all this negotiation about what are we going to do, do we still love each other anymore,” McCombs said. “And in comes this girl. It is like an affair is going on, even though it isn’t sexual.”

For that reason, the play becomes about much more than puppy passion.

“For what’s a light comedy, it has great insight into marriage and the nature of love and what people will do to maintain their partnership,” McCombs said. “They push it to the wall and ultimately make a huge concession.”

Heffernan added, “the nature of mature love.”

“It’s fun to do a play about a 23-year marriage,” she said.

And lest cat lovers believe “Sylvia” is simply not their cup of kibble, McCombs encourages them to give it a try. In addition to directing the show, she has also played the role of Kate. The role challenged her to persuasively show that she wasn’t a villain — just someone who didn’t want the cares and worries of dog ownership.

Some nights she succeeded, McCombs said.

Other nights, she wasn’t so sure.

“I could tell when the audience was filled with absolute dog lovers because they didn’t love me,” she said.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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