TWS barking up a funny tree with ‘Sylvia’
Karen Holbert (from left), Joe Mills and Jen Torchia star in "Sylvia" at Theatre of Western Springs
Theatre of Western Springs, 4384 Hampton Ave.
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Jan. 17-19, 24-26; 2:30 p.m. Sundays Jan. 20, 27; 7:30 p.m. Sunday Jan. 20; 2:30 p.m. Saturday Jan. 26
Tickets, $18 and $20
(708) 246-3380; www.theatreofwesternsprings.com
Updated: January 17, 2013 12:06PM
“I’ve always wanted to play a title role, so this is an ego boost for me.”
That’s from Jennifer Torchia of Lombard, playing the lead in “Sylvia,” A.R. Gurney’s comedy now through Jan. 27 at Theatre of Western Springs.
Though the role was first played by Sarah Jessica Parker in 1995, very pre- “Sex in the City,” it could have been one of those ‘Be careful what you wish for” events for Torchia.
Gurney’s Sylvia is a dog.
But Torchia loves the role too to worry. “I even get treats,” she says. “I might or might not catch them in my mouth. We’ll see.”
Sylvia is a mutt found wandering in a park by Greg, a middle-aged middle manager type who’s in the throes of a midlife crisis. He’s questioning the value of his life, his work, his marriage, explains Joe Mills of Westchester, who plays Greg. He’s lost hold of whatever meaning he saw in life, and finding Sylvia, “he feels like he’s finally got someone who understands all that.”
Sylvia is not just any dog. She’s rather more than canine, able to “talk” to people and understand their words quite well. Yet she’s still all over the furniture, rolling on the floor for belly scratches and jumping on people she’s happy to see.
But Torchia explains, she’s essentially dog. Sylvia’s “talk,” is very basic, what you imagine a dog must think. “Let’s eat” and “I like that” are about as complicated as it gets. “There’s almost no subtext,” says Torchia. “The barking comes out mostly as ‘Hey!’ because I’m trying to get attention.”
However, says Mills, Torchia is canine par excellence. “She’s phenomenally adept,” he says of her animal behavior, and onstage, “I see her as a dog.”
Karen Holbert of Western Springs, who plays Mills’ bewildered wife Kate, agrees. “Jennifer has such a wonderful, playful energy as a person, that it’s not hard to see her as a dog. She plays the part with a lot of heart, and that energy makes it easy to play off of.”
Besides, Holbert adds, “We all tend to personify our animals, so it seems very natural to have the dog be a person.”
The problem is that Sylvia becomes far too important to Greg. “Greg’s missing something in his life,” says Torchia. “He can’t quite put his finger on it, but Sylvia is the manifestation of it.”
Almost obsessed with Sylvia, he puts the dog in an emotionally inappropriate role, says Mills, who views his character with great compassion. “Greg’s a very good man caught up in a situation where everything is suddenly out of control.”
This, of course saddens, confuses and angers his wife. “The play is really about the midlife crisis of this couple’s relationship, and how they work through it,” says Holbert.
“This is not fluff,” notes Mills. “It’s got depth,” in its explorations of lives and relationships.
Yet comedy is paramount. “Anyone who’s ever had a dog will get a chuckle out of it,” says Mark Cunningham of La Grange, who has three roles in “Sylvia.”
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a challenge,” Cuningham says of these multiple identities. He plays a man, a woman and a Leslie. He explains that Gurney did not designate a gender for Leslie. So staying true to the script, he’s playing it straight — that is, ambiguously. “It’s literally up to the audience to decide.”
Slipping in and out of characters and costumes hasn’t been too bad, Cunningham explains. “The author was kind,” so there’s sufficient breathing — and changing — space between his numerous entrances. “He doesn’t make me jump through hoops.”
He’s also delighted to revisit the show, which was “one of the first plays I ever saw at TWS,” when they produced it in 1999. Not only that, “it was the first time I ever laid eyes on my wife,” he says. She played Kate, not the dog.
Now with an onstage perspective on the show now, Cunningham, like his fellow players, is thoroughly enjoying the production process. “It might not be what you expect,” he says, “but it’s a rollicking play.”