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Civic Theatre’s ‘Sylvia’ much deeper than a show about a dog

Yes, A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia” is a dog play.

One of the three main characters is a dog named Sylvia. She’s played by a human – in this case, Spokane actress Beth Carey – who said she is basing her performance on a certain Charlie, her own friendly Lab mix.

But don’t get the idea that this is some kind of canine version of “Cats” or even a theatrical version of “Marley and Me.”

“Sylvia” is – and this is no contradiction in terms – an uncommonly sophisticated dog story.

This 1995 comedy operates from the following premise: A middle-aged man named Greg finds a stray dog in Central Park and brings her home. His wife, Kate, is not pleased. She wants nothing to do with a dog.

Both Greg and Sylvia try to convince Kate, with mixed results, to say the least. Jealousy ensues.

Sylvia is no cartoon dog, but she does happen to speak English.

For instance, at one point, she looks adoringly at Greg and says, “You are God!”

Which is exactly the sort of thing a loyal canine companion might say.

Gurney’s formula certainly proved successful. The play was an instant Broadway hit, with Sarah Jessica Parker as Sylvia. Critics loved it.

“Not since ‘Abie’s Irish Rose’ has there been a play as critic-proof as ‘Sylvia,’ at least for anyone who has ever owned a dog, loved a dog, wanted to wring a dog’s neck or wished the dog would take a long weekend,” wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times.

“I’ve never seen a dog portrait in films or on stage that quite matches the truth and wit of Ms. Parker’s performance.”

Gurney said he wrote the play for the most natural of reasons: A writer should write what he feels strongly about and he felt strongly about his dog.

A dog which, by the way, his wife wasn’t exactly crazy about.

Gurney also realized this would give him a chance to create dueling undercurrents throughout the play. The actress can exhibit some canine characteristics, and the dog can exhibit some human characteristics.

“The idea of animals portraying human characteristics goes back to Aesop’s Fables, back to Homer,” Gurney said in an interview with the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s ProLogue magazine. “It’s very old.”

Carey said that preparing for this role was actually a bit easier than normal. The dog’s motiviations, she said, are “pretty simple” compared to most human characters. When she’s told to sit, she sits.

Brooke Kiener directs the Civic production. Bill Forant plays Greg, Anne Mitchell plays Kate and Jerry Sciarrio plays three other characters.

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