BWW Review: SYLVIA at Alban Arts Center
Who would have thought that a play about a dog - a role performed by a human no less - would offer such a thought-provoking look at the meaning of life, the bond between owner and animal, the struggles of a long term married couple, and how to cope with growing older? Well Sylvia, A.R. Gurney's hilarious and emotional tribute to man's best friend, does exactly that.
Sylvia comes alive on the Alban Art Center's stage, helmed by an ensemble of four perfectly cast performers. This production showcases independent theater at its finest; a fantastic look at what a small team of dedicated actors and crew can create while also serving as a great theatrical study on how to use the whole room to tell an engrossing story.
Greg - played with a subtle mix of naivety, world weariness, and a gentle heart by Cameron Vance - decides to leave work early after an altercation with his boss. Fed up with his job and feeling unfulfilled in life, he heads to Central Park to relax. While sitting on a bench he meets Sylvia, a stray dog wearing a nametag with no owner information, who decides to adopt Greg as her new owner. Sylvia is played with masterful comic timing and a keen attention to what makes dogs so loveable and, well, slightly needy, by Cassandra Phelps.
Greg is ecstatic, maybe a dog is just what he needs to bring some meaning back to his life now that his children are both in college, but his wife Kate - played with deadpan sophistication and fierceness by veteran local actor Lauren Meyer - wants nothing to do with Sylvia. Having recently moved to downtown, she thinks having a dog is too much for them to handle; what with work, dinner parties, trips to the country, and other obligations to attend to. But Greg remains un-swayed.
During one of his frequent trips to the park with Sylvia, Greg meets another dog owner, Tom, who helps Greg navigate the strange changes in his life and offers advice on how to take care of both his new dog and his wife's needs. Austin Thomas plays Tom with an everyday man quality, someone once down on their luck that happened to figure out what life was about. But Tom is not the only role Thomas plays, as he also steals the show with his portrayal of Phyllis, a recovering alcoholic friend to Kate, and Leslie, an understanding psychiatrist who eventually reaches her breaking point on the weirdness she will tolerate in her office. Thomas is hilarious and excels in all three of his roles, each guiding one or more of the stories characters to reach an understanding of their own personal needs.
Director Leah Turley makes great use of the theater, utilizing the small space to great efficiency. Actors never move set pieces, rather they move from one side of the U-shaped stage to the other to change scenes, each serving as a different location in the story. The actors move freely about, sometimes in the aisles beside the audience, sometimes resting on the stairs leading up to the stage, sometimes walking off stage only to appear behind the audience. It is a great use of space and helps the theater and set feel much larger than they are.
I attended the show expecting to laugh but was pleasantly surprised by the emotional depth hidden behind the lighthearted tone. At its heart this is a story about growing up and how we, even after being married for twenty odd years and reaching middle age, still thrive to be loved and to be fulfilled. Is life worth wasting your days away at a job you hate? Is success worth neglecting those you love? Is a pet more than just an animal? Sylvia deftly tackles all these subjects while maintaining a raunchy comedic tone throughout.
Sylvia is a joy to watch; full of fantastic actors, great direction, a hilarious and thought-provoking script, and a message many of us need to hear - you'd be doing yourself an injustice to not catch this show during one of its final three performances.
There are three more chances to catch Sylvia this weekend: May 3rd and 4th, 2019 at 8:00 PM and May 5th, 2019 at 2:00 PM. The show is around 1 hour and 40 minutes long and does not have an intermission and is rated R due to some adult language and situations. All performances will take place at the Alban Arts Center, located at 65 Olde Main Plaza, St. Albans, WV 25177. Tickets are $15.00 for adults and $10.00 for Seniors and Students.