A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” a play about a man and wife whose marriage is affected by the arrival of a dog named Sylvia, first appeared Off-Broadway in 1995 and, 10 years later, had a limited-run production on Broadway.
The Little Theatre of Winston-Salem will bring the comedy of shifting relationships to the Hanesbrands Theatre downtown for two weekends.
Directed by Nick Zayas, the “Sylvia” cast includes Chad Edwards and Hayley Hansen as the couple who adopt Sylvia, played by Britt Cannino Stone. They are supported by Matthew Cravey and Emily Williamson.
Zayas was immediately attracted to Gurney’s story.
“As soon as I read the script,” he said, “I was drawn to it because it’s just so different, and quirky and fun. I love directing musicals and dramas, but whenever I get the chance to work on something this off-beat, I know I’m going to have a blast.”
Though each of the actors has a well-defined character to build, perhaps the most interesting challenge for Zayas and Britt Stone is having a human play the role of a stray dog.
“I was drawn to this production based on almost every aspect of the play and story, especially the title role being a dog played by a woman,” Stone said. “Essentially, I have always searched for the most challenging and different types of roles and, seeing as how I am 100 percent human — maybe — the challenge of representing a dog’s personality and behavior, while also creating the depth behind the character and the script, grabbed my interest.”
Most of the work of treading the line between dog and human-like behaviors has happened at rehearsal.
“In rehearsals, I was able to work on a completely different type of character work than I have ever done before,” Stone said. “Finding my character extends initially off of a dog’s behavior, tendencies, and specifically, the movement as well. Some moments, I am playing fetch with a little ball, but in other moments, I am feeling and responding in true human ways.”
Part of the learning has been roaming around the set as a dog exploring a new place, and “all the while, being present within the script and responding to those moments that derive from actual human emotions,” she added.
As the director, “What’s most interesting to me is exploring the emotional-empathetic relationship between humans and dogs,” Zayas said. “There’s sweetness, child-like curiosity and endless optimism to dogs, all of which are crucial to the character. Without that heart, you’re just going to get a farcical portrayal.
“We’ve taken the time to really think about what mannerisms to steal directly from dogs, such as scratching, tail wagging, yawning and which ones to ‘translate’ into a more human-like physical language such as barking, begging running and jumping,” he said.
Chad Edwards, who plays the husband who finds and brings Sylvia home, had seen a “Sylvia” production some years back. “I thought it was a clever premise and very funny, so I was immediately interested.”
Discovering his character clicked for Edwards, too.
“It’s interesting because Greg is going through a mid-life crisis phase. I was at that point a little over a year ago in my life, so I can definitely relate,” he said. “It has been interesting finding the nuances in his relationships with Sylvia and his wife, Kate. I also think the dialogue is very smart.”
Hayley Hansen said of her character, “Kate is a very interesting character who seems readable on the surface but is full of complex emotions.”
“She is an empty-nester who is ready for her second wind in life but is unsure how that fits with her marriage and the life she used to lead. It has been interesting to explore her depth of emotions and the complexities that come with her particular stage in life.”
Zayas feels that “Sylvia” fits the pattern of a good stage comedy.
“It’s a heart-warming story for anyone, especially those that have ever loved a pet,” he said. “I’ve always believed that the best comedies can have you rolling with laughter one minute, and then wiping away tears the next. I believe this show does just that.”
“I would tell people considering seeing the show that it is the best kind of theater,” Hansen said. “You will laugh, you will cringe, you will cry, and ultimately, you will walk away feeling a deep connection to the characters.”