Sunday, June 07, 2015

Canine Comedy Sylvia: How We Project onto our Pets

[Photo: Mia's eye says,"Can't I have breakfast in bed?" or am I just projecting?]

A.R.Gurney's comedy Sylvia starts from a bold conceit: a grown woman portrays "Sylvia" the dog (Amanda Crucher) as a biped in jeans who speaks aloud the kinds of thoughts that we dog owners attribute to our pups. Instead of barking, she says, "Hey! Hey!" Instead of wearing the leash, she holds it. She tells "Greg," her middle-aged rescuer (James Baskin), "I love you!  You are my God!"  When Greg's wife "Kate" finds her husband enthralled by the dog, we don't blame Kate for being jealous.

The story seems to come down to one question: will Greg choose Sylvia over Kate?  At Stage Door Players' production north of Atlanta, the cast rode a steady stream of laughs before they reached Gurney's surprising resolution. 

Director Shelley McCook writes in the program that she sees a larger, more universal crisis in the play.  She herself portrayed "Sylvia" in the first production I saw years ago, and naturally understood the play to be dog-centric.  But, as she points out, Greg and Kate, their children away at college, now "begin to explore previously overlooked dreams, ambitions, and longings," a moment that challenges their marriage of twenty years.  "The introduction of a 'younger woman' is only a catalyst for the conflict that emerges from this new and uncertain phase of their lives."

Perhaps because McCook herself, script in hand, subbed as "Kate" on the night that I saw the show, "Kate's" agonies stood out more than in other productions I've seen.   As the couple consult friends and a therapist  (all played convincingly by actor Doyle Reynolds), one important thought emerges, that "Greg" is projecting on "Sylvia."  A character at the dog park warns Greg away from using a human name for a dog:  "You'll forget she's just a dog."  The therapist suggests that a middle-aged man, no longer providing for children, is seeing in his dog's eyes all the adoration that he needs to see, to feel important.

Since I saw the play, I've looked more deeply into my dogs' eyes.  Am I wrong to see adoration in the eyes of my adolescent Mia?  When I see through a screen to my old dog Luis sitting at the top of steps that he used to climb at a gallop, am I wrong to read wistfulness into that face?

[Photo: Luis, through window screen, unaware of me]

No comments: