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A case of puppy love

Dog adds unusual element to story of marriage, dissatisfaction in ‘Sylvia’

Sylvia, played by Jennie Oliver, points out a cute dog across the dog park to her owner, Greg, played by Stephen Holcomb, in Civic Theatre’s “Sylvia.” (Jesse Tinsley)
Sylvia, played by Jennie Oliver, points out a cute dog across the dog park to her owner, Greg, played by Stephen Holcomb, in Civic Theatre’s “Sylvia.” (Jesse Tinsley)

We’ve all had one-sided conversations with our pets, but in A.R. Gurney’s play “Sylvia,” the pet talks back.

Perhaps the word “pet” is a bit of a misnomer: Sylvia is a stray dog, but she’s played by a human who isn’t costumed to look like a dog, and she communicates openly with her owners as if she’s no different from them.

Gurney’s domestic comedy, which opens tonight at the Spokane Civic Theatre (the theater previously staged it in 2010), takes a basic conflict – one half of a couple wants the dog, the other half does not – and reworks it into a sort of bizarre love triangle.

There are certain odd stylistic devices in “Sylvia” – not only is the role of a dog written for a human, but a trio of characters is designed to be portrayed by a single actor – that suggest it’s more farcical and surreal than it actually is. But Melody Deatherage, who’s directing the Civic production, says the show isn’t some kind of abstract fantasy.

“It’s pretty much grounded in realism,” she said. “We just suspend our disbelief immediately that (Sylvia) is a dog. We just accept that.”

The story: Empty nesters Greg (Stephen Holcomb) and Kate (Allison Corn) have just moved from the suburbs into the city, where Kate’s professional life has taken off after years of not working. One day, after a walk through the park, Greg brings a stray dog named Sylvia (Jennie Oliver) back to their Manhattan apartment.

There’s an automatic pushback from Kate, who thinks she has enough on her plate without the addition of a mongrel to the household. But Greg has fallen in love with the dog, which drives a wedge between him and his wife. In that regard, Sylvia serves the same purpose as a mistress would in a more serious-minded piece, and the play ends up functioning as a commentary on both the challenges of marriage and the frustrations of middle age.

But “Sylvia” isn’t all about conflict. Greg’s relationship with the dog – and Kate’s disdain toward her – ends up, in a strange way, mending the fractures that were already starting to show in the marriage.

“Dogs don’t really have a past or a future; they live totally in the present,” Deatherage said. “The dog helps us access what’s going on with our human emotions. … Sylvia helps this couple come back and find each other through their relationship with her.”

Deatherage says that the master-dog relationship is what’s really at the heart of “Sylvia,” and that anyone who’s ever had any kind of canine connection will be able to relate to the play’s more moving passages.

“It’s very much a comedy, but with the poignancy of human behavior,” she said. “A human comedy is how I would describe it, even though it’s about a dog. … We can bare our souls to animals in ways we’re unable to with our human counterparts, even those who are closest to us. They can help us be better humans.”

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