JCCT season finale ‘Sylvia’ opens Friday night

BROWNSTOWN — After 22 years of raising children in the suburbs, Greg and Kate move to Manhattan, New York.

Greg’s career as a financial trader is winding down, while Kate’s career as a public school English teacher is beginning to offer her more opportunities.

One day, Greg brings home a dog he found in the park — or that has found him — bearing only the name “Sylvia” on her name tag.

A street-smart mixture of Labrador and poodle, Sylvia becomes a major bone of contention between the husband and wife. She offers Greg an escape from the frustrations of his job and the unknowns of middle age. To Kate, Sylvia becomes a rival for affection. Sylvia, meanwhile, thinks Kate just doesn’t understand the relationship between man and dog.

The marriage is put in serious jeopardy until, after a series of hilarious and touching complications, Greg and Kate learn to compromise, and Sylvia becomes a valued part of their lives.

The play written by A.R. Gurney will be staged the next two weekends at Royal Off-the-Square Theatre in Brownstown.

Director Paul Angle said he read the script in the mid-1990s when it first came out and loved it, so he was excited when he was told a director was needed for the JCCT production, which serves as the 2021-22 season finale.

“It is my sense of humor. It’s a little dark and twisted and absurd,” he said. “I’ve always been attracted to that kind of comedy.”

The show only has four actors: Shawn Charlton as Greg, Natalie Whan as Kate, Kristina Charlton as Sylvia and Duane Barnard as Leslie, Phyllis and Tom.

Angle said all four have embraced their roles.

“They launched right into it. They seemed to pick up on them right away, so it was the first sign that made me think, ‘Yeah, I got the right people,’ which is a key to any show, really,” he said.

“With such a small group and obviously Shawn and Kristina being married, it gives them that extra little chemistry together. It works really well,” Angle said. “The way it’s written and the way Kristina is playing it, she has just really embodied that childlikeness of a dog.”

Angle said he thinks the audience will relate to the comedy and the fact that it’s a story revolving around a dog, even though they push a few boundaries. Due to the language and adult themes, the show is not recommended for young children.

“This is a love letter to pet owners, I think,” he said. “The message of the show is really about connection. Greg’s trying to connect to what he lost. His disconnect is getting caught up in the rat race, and Kate is trying to get into it with pursuing her master’s in education, and you’ll see in the second act, she comes back around. It’s just about that connection.”

Shawn Charlton said the show’s message is about one of the biggest struggles in life: Aging and how everybody deals with it.

“Kate does it by advancing in her career and doing something she couldn’t do when she had young kids,” he said. “Greg started to find out how much he hates the corporate world and wants something else and struggles with kids being grown.”

The storyline revolves around something a lot of people go through, he said.

“I think that’s what A.R. Gurney was doing when he wrote this script. He was talking about all of us getting older and doing stuff, which is a timeless concept,” Shawn said. “Some of the jokes and the fashion don’t hold up, but the timeless message of dealing with getting older does.”

To Kristina Charlton, the message of the show is finding your happiness however you have to find it, even if there is a rough road to get there. Well, in her case as Sylvia, that would be a “ruff” road.

“This is unlike anything that most people ever do, to play an animal, and so it has just been so fun to add things night after night, especially as we get comfortable with each other together and no script,” she said.

She has even been watching her own dog at home and wondering what it’s thinking.

“Just little things that she does I incorporate into things in the show,” Kristina said. “It’s just a really fun role that probably will never come around in my lifetime again, to play an animal. It’s just a really fun show.”

Whan said when she first read the script, she thought it was “weird, funny, bizarre and absurd.” When she and Kristina read together, though, she felt a real instant connection.

With Kate being grumpy, snooty, shallow and mean, Whan said it took her a few weeks to get the character in her head.

“I think somewhere under her snooty little surface, she likes the dog, but she couldn’t admit it,” she said.

That relates to what she describes as the message of the show: Life brings a lot of changes.

“Being patient with each other is really super important, remembering when you’re in a relationship with somebody that they are still their own individual person and they have things that they like and things that they want to do,” she said. “For a relationship, whether it’s friendship or marriage, to be successful, you have to grow with that both ways. It has to come from both spouses or both people in the friendship.”

Things change, and it’s OK as long as you are adult enough to change with each other, she said.

“Don’t forget where you find your love from, too,” she said.

Barnard is in a unique position because he plays three roles, including two female characters. Leslie is a marriage counselor, Phyllis is a friend of Kate and Tom is a random person Greg meets while walking Sylvia in the park.

“With Tom, he just reminds me of a macho nerd. He’s very book smart, always got his nose in a book, but he puts it out there he’s just this macho kind of guy in his own little realm, so that’s fun to play,” Barnard said.

“Then with Phyllis, it’s kind of a challenge for me trying to play a drunk female aristocrat,” he said, laughing. “Leslie, it’s just kind of a free-for-all character. I can play that any way I want. That’s a really fun one to play. Uncomfortable sometimes, but fun to play.”

For him, the message of the show is that love can come in all different forms.

“You can’t really just put a label on love and say love is this, this or this,” Barnard said. “You really explore it here of how love can happen not just between two humans but between a person and their pet. That’s a real, true, huge love. That’s a big dynamic when you put it on the stage like this between a husband and wife and a pet that they’ve fallen in love with.”

If you go 

What: Jackson County Community Theatre’s production of “Sylvia”

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. April 29 and 30

Where: Royal Off-the-Square Theatre, 121 W. Walnut St., Brownstown

Tickets: $12 for adults and $10 for students and senior citizens (the show is not recommended for young children due to language and adult themes); may be purchased online at jcct.org, in person at Family Drug in Brownstown or Artistic Impressions in Seymour or by calling 812-358-5228

Director: Paul Angle

Production manager: Paul Keller

Cast: Duane Barnard, Kristina Charlton, Shawn Charlton and Natalie Whan