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Fetching ‘Sylvia’ Tells the Story of Empty-Nesters and a Dog

Dog ownership is sometimes associated with positive outcomes: lower blood pressure and cholesterol, a brighter outlook on life. As the old saying goes: If you’re feeling lonely, get a dog.

Yet the introduction of a dog in the lives of Kate and Greg, the empty-nest couple in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, currently being staged in an endearing and funny production at Enfield’s Shaker Bridge Theatre, manages to bring out the worst in each of them.

That dog is Sylvia, an anthropomorphic, unspecified breed played by Jeannie Hines that Greg (Bill Chappelle) finds abandoned in the park and brings home to the Manhattan apartment he’s just moved into with his wife Kate. From the start, Sylvia bounds with a canine’s energy, showering affection on her new master and feeding him the words that every man in middle age wants to hear: “I think you’re God, if you want to know.”

In another stage of life, Kate (Kim Meredith) may have welcomed Sylvia with open arms. Now, having left the suburbs and the day-to-day challenges of child rearing behind, Kate has grand visions for a new life in Manhattan: dinner with friends, Knicks games, chamber music concerts, all in addition to her challenging, fulfilling job teaching English to urban middle-schoolers. Those visions do not leave room for a dog.

“Not in New York, not at this stage of our lives,” Kate tells her husband, but it’s no use. Sylvia has had Greg eating out of her paw from first sight. Greg’s going through a rough patch at work, and Sylvia fills an unmet need. What that need is, “I’m not sure, but I have it,” Greg insists.

Despite its title, Sylvia is as much the couple’s story as it is the dog’s. As Sylvia firmly implants herself in Greg and Kate’s life (and on their living room couch, much to Kate’s chagrin), she drives a wedge between them, bringing out the Grinch in Kate, and turning Greg into a philosophical flake on nightly walks. But Meredith and Chappelle each avoid the potential limitations of their roles. Having spent many years supporting Greg and the children, Meredith’s Kate is assertive as she embarks on her own career; Meredith infuses the character with the right amount of no-nonsense pragmatism, without turning her into a nag or “the bad guy” for wanting Sylvia out of their lives. As Greg, Chappelle falls entirely under Sylvia’s spell, but his performance never lets us forget that Greg is just a guy struggling through the muddle of middle age. His scenes with Sylvia are tender-hearted, showing not only the bond between them but the transformation he’s going through. Bonding with Sylvia is not entirely positive for Greg — it results in him getting an involuntary hiatus from work and in strained relations with Kate — but it’s also nudging him to view the world in a more enlightened way.

The show, however, really belongs to Sylvia, and the short, spunky Hines packs a lot of energy into her small frame and a ton of heart into her performance, though at times one worries she may combust from all the bouncing around onstage. Sylvia also sees nice use of Dan Weintraub in drag, as Phyllis, Kate’s patrician Vassar classmate; in semi-drag, as Leslie, the androgynous therapist who’s more concerned with exploring her sexuality than with helping Kate and Greg repair their marriage; and as Tom, Greg’s cocky acquaintance from the dog park who passes along questionable book titles and dog-rearing advice. Under Bill Coons’ direction, Sylvia is fast-paced but never rushed.

The play ends with a sweet coda, with post-Sylvia Greg and Kate glowing as they speak about the dog and the role she played in their lives. For all the troubles Sylvia brought them, she delivered joy as well.

Weekend shows continue through Dec. 16.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.