On stage, Jen Torchia is dressed like a human. She walks like a human; talks like a human. But she’s acting like—and playing—a dog.
Torchia is the eponymous canine of Sylvia, opening today at the Theatre of Western Springs mainstage, a play with a cast of four that examines the effect of a chance meeting between a middle-aged man and a stray pooch on the fellow’s life and family. The two form an instant bond, with Sylvia providing a charming antidote to the man’s awful work life.
“It’s a cool story because everybody in the story is ‘good,’” said Joe Mills of Westchester, who plays the man, Greg. “It’s really got four protagonists, but all who are flawed. But they’re good. It’s a wonderful story… It’s madcap, but it’s also wonderfully sensitive when it needs to be.”
Mills describes Greg and Sylvia’s relationship as being overwhelmingly “real,” as passionate as platonic love gets. (They even converse.) But his wife and the couple’s acquaintances are less enthused as Sylvia begins to take over Greg’s life, and the threat of an “it’s-me-or-the-dog” situation begins to loom.
While there are plenty of sources of comedy in the play, one of the most outlandish comes from Sylvia’s being able to speak, putting English rationalizations to canine behavior. (This writer was reminded of some of Brian Griffin’s more doglike moments—“hey other dog, [expletive] you!”—and parents should note that the play does contain adult themes and language, and is not appropriate for kids.)
“It’s definitely very physical!” said Torchia, of Lombard. To prepare for the role—debuted by and originally dedicated to actress Sarah Jessica Parker—she studied friends’ dogs, and videos on YouTube to prepare for the role, and also had to get accustomed to being petted and fed out of hand. “It’s awesome. I’m having lot of fun."
“Everything in a dog’s world is the best thing ever: ‘food? That’s my favorite! Walk? That’s my favorite! Your shoe? That’s my favorite!’ Keeping up that level of enthusiasm about the small things in life has been a lot of fun, and it kind of gives you appreciation as a human.”
Director Greg Kolack, of Downers Grove, is helming his third TWS show and his second production of Sylvia, having previously done the show at Lewis University in Romeoville. Kolack praised the wit and innovation of playwright A. R. Gurney, repeatedly declaring how much fun the entire cast was having with the show.
“It’s just a lot of fun to talk about,” Kolack said. “We all constantly talked about our own personal dog stories through they to relate to the show and how dogs do things and what dogs are really thinking when they see a cat.”
The show notably also features three adjacent sets with no need for crew to make changes between scenes; the sets are open and spacious, giving plenty of space for the four actors to fill with their antics.
“I think the show is very cinematic,” said Kolack. “Gurney actually calls for that—you don’t have to do exactly what the playwright calls for, but he suggests that the set should be very sparse, and it makes it much more fluid, you don’t have sets rolling on and off, it keeps it very cinematic.”
Sylvia plays at the Theatre of Western Springs on Jan. 17, 18, 19, 24, 25 and 26 at 8:00 p.m., Jan. 20, 26 and 27 at 2:30 p.m. and Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18-20 and can be purchased by calling 708-246-3380 or at the Theatre’s website.
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