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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Central player in ‘Sylvia’ doggone good at Grand Oshkosh

Critic At Large

Oshkosh Community Players

Program cover.

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV)

A play automatically is a suspension of disbelief. Those people on stage are making believe who they are. So, to get into a topic to explore, why not a dog that talks?

That would be Sylvia, a mixed breed Lab and something other, in the play “Sylvia.” In the version that Oshkosh Community Players is doing in The Grand Oshkosh, Jehy Thompson is a terrific Sylvia.

Jehy Thompson as Sylvia. (Abbigale Dusing)

Continuing to Saturday, Oct. 19, are three more performances in partnership with Oshkosh Area Humane Society. The troupe has a knack for matching plays with a community need.

The play is about people, a couple. The dog is a catalyst in how they shape their future.

Can Sylvia swear! If she catches sight of a cat – whoa! – does she let out a flamethrower of profanity.

Mostly when Sylvia talks, she sticks to dog stuff – food, “out,” affection, scratching, sleeping.

When her master ponders and talks about his situation in life and quandaries, Sylvia is pretty much, “That’s beyond me.” The subtitle of her job description is this: Object of Love.

The play is by A.R. Gurney, who is especially famous for “Love Letters,” which continues to be performed, often by celebrities.

“Sylvia” is from 1995. It contains references to politicians and celebrities of the time along with an enduring theme and an intriguing gender situation that seems like today.

Michael J. Laskowski, who directs and acts around the region, has a sturdy cast of mostly veteran players. On opening night Friday, one actor needed more volume and enunciation (and likely has been advised about such), but the players shaped their roles with skill, discipline and care.

The story in 25 words: A stray dog wedges between a man frustrated by his job and a woman succeeding in hers as their nest has emptied and “home” shifts.

The play starts as Greg (Casey Nash) returns to the couple’s Manhattan apartment overjoyed with Sylvia having leapt into his arms while seated on a park bench as he played hooky from his job. He sees the unconditional love of Sylvia in his future. When his wife, Kate (Jill Knetter) arrives home, it is Katy bar the door: No to the dog. Greg’s pleadings bring a trial run of “a couple of days”… that gets stretched.

Greg and Kate lock horns over and over.

Lock-horn scenes end with Kate, an English teacher, reciting appropriate lines from plays by William Shakespeare.

Along the way, Greg fudges about his job that has grown into abstractions, and he has become wacky. Kate is more than cold to Sylvia, who does doggy things like shed and get hair on Kate’s lofty friend, Phyllis (Vicki Layde).

Advice arrives in two ways.

One. While walking Sylvia, Greg meets fellow dog owner Tom (Draven Wagner), who has a gift for sounding authoritative as he cites books of questionable philosophical value. The books are about dog-owner relationships.

Two. Kate seeks counseling with a professional, Leslie (Amy Molinski, in a precise performance). That works okay for Kate, but when Greg takes a seat, confusion arises as so much turns around Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia. Also at play in a heady way is A.R. Gurney’s creation of Leslie as an either/or gender. Gurney seems to have been way ahead of time dealing with so many questions that are being more volubly heard today.

All around this, Jehy Thompson lives and breathes the role of a dog with a big personality. She is especially expressive and energized. In good ol’ theatrical suspension of disbelief, this dog does talk and have feelings she can verbalize and be a loved one.

The play is not about the dog. It’s about realizations that are needed as couples move through life together.

***

Creative: Playwright – A.R. Gurney; director – Michael J. Laskowski; stage manager – Leah Demski; lighting designer – Nate Schuers; master scenic builder – Jesse Lockstein; technical liason – John Rubino; costumes – Jolee Jackson; scenic charge – Sommer Johnson-Loar; props master – Christy Dubey; sound designer – Brian Haverty

Cast (in order of appearance):

Sylvia – Jehy Thompson

Greg – Casey Nash

Kate – Jill Knetter

Tom – Draven Wagner

Phyliss – Vicki Layde

Leslie – Amy Molinski

Running time: Two hours, 2 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20

Info: thegrandoshkosh.org

***

NEXT: “Someplace Different” by Bradley Dokken, Feb. 27-March 7.

THE VENUE: Located at 100 High Ave. in Oshkosh, the 550-seat Grand Opera House is one of Wisconsin’s showcase surviving theaters. Built for live performance well before the arrival of movies, the theater opened Aug. 9, 1883. Designed by architect William Waters, the building reflects the opulence of the era and the strength of Oshkosh at the time. Roman influences abound in columns and support elements. Ceiling and wall artistry is elaborately detailed. A portrait of William Shakespeare above the stage gives the impression he is overseeing everything. See thegrandoshkosh.org/history for details on the theater’s rich history and ongoing challenges. When you are there, wander around the building – up and down stairways and in and around nooks and crannies – and savor the details along with vintage photos and displays. For instance, in the balcony are elaborate sections everywhere. In the rear ceiling are rectangles fringed by flowers and vines. The largest rectangle includes a crossing pattern with a square at the center that’s angled like a diamond. In the front ceiling, a crossing pattern in the central square leads to a circle which depicts cherubs at play, one riding a fly. The top edge on side walls is curved, with images being a series of potted trumpet vines interspersed with maize. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The building is owned by and receives financial support from the City of Oshkosh.

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