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A year after his successful directorial debut with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Brunswick Little Theatre actor/director Ron Lee has reunited several of that show’s cast members to produce “Sylvia,” a romantic comedy with a decidedly weird twist.
The two-act play by A.R. Gurney, set for March 7 and 8 at Odell Williamson Auditorium, is the story of Greg and Kate, who move to New York City from the suburbs after their children move out. It results in depression for Greg and a newfound freedom for Kate.
To combat his troubles, Greg adopts a dog, Sylvia, and eventually becomes obsessed with her—so much so they communicate like people, driving a wedge between Greg and Kate that may not be easily removed.
“There’s a person playing the part of the dog,” Lee explained. “The audience will forget it’s a human being and relate to the things the dog is saying.”
Lee said he decided to direct this offbeat show “because it’s drop-dead funny. It’s one of the most clever I’ve seen in a long time.”
He says he saw the play twice, in Wilmington and Greenville, several years ago, and “it kind of captivated me.”
When another BLT actor remarked it would be a fun show to do, Lee jumped at the chance to direct.
“The board [of directors] had some reservations about it,” he recalled. “There’s some objectionable language, and it’s a far cry from what BLT usually does. But it’s not just gratuitous.”
Lee said he knew it would be a risk, but he believed it was worth taking.
“I look for stuff that you wouldn’t expect to see in community theater,” he says of his directing choices. “The theater arts bring a lot of different looks, messages and stories. They don’t all have to be ‘South Pacific’ or ‘Oklahoma,’ although those are great. There’s also some pretty good literature and artwork out there, and this happens to be one of them.”
Sylvia is played by BLT actress Maureen Dewire, who said this is the best, most challenging role she’s taken on. It is her second starring role.
“I’m trying to spend time with people’s dogs and watch their movements,” Dewire said of her preparation. “It’s really hard to be another species. You have to think
‘Would a dog cross its arms or twiddle its thumbs?’ But then, would a dog talk? So you have to find the middle ground.”
Although Sylvia is a difficult part to pull off, Lee says Dewire’s stage presence makes it believable.
“Men in the audience will like her, and women see her as a threat to the marriage—if we do it right,” he said.
Portraying Greg, a role he’s played before, is local stage veteran Eben French Mastin.
“He’s the perfect nave character,” Lee said of Mastin’s portrayal. “He doesn’t understand why everybody’s not into Sylvia. She’s taken over his whole life.”
Mastin said he auditioned for the role because it’s “such a fun show” and because he’s a dog lover and understands what Greg is going through. Although he doesn’t usually like to repeat performances, this one is the exception.
Victoria Chatfield, a longtime BLT actress who’s equally at home playing Nurse Ratched in “Cuckoo’s Nest” or Mother Superior in the musical comedy “Nunsense,” easily won the role of Kate.
“She just has natural comedic timing,” Lee said.
Chatfield said she jumped at the chance to work with Lee again.
“He lets us go with our characters,” she said of his directing style. “He has a specific vision for the play as a wholeee and he’s very open to listening if we have a different view.”
Rounding out the cast is Pete McLintock, and if the audience thinks playing a dog is a challenge, this veteran actor has signed on to play three different characters.
“Ideally, when A.R. Gurney wrote the show, he had one [actor] play three roles,” Lee explained. And the roles are pure comic relief.
The first part is Phyllis, an Upper East Side Manhattan socialite and college friend of Kate who reconnects with her and offers advice about Sylvia. The second is Tom, a regular guy from the Bronx who comes off as sort of a buffoon but reveals himself to be well-educated, well-read and full of advice for Greg.
The final McLintock character is Leslie, the couple’s marriage counselor whose clients don’t know if “he/she” is a man or woman.
“Pete’s done it pretty wonderfully,” Lee said. “He is just a really talented man who doesn’t understand what a chameleon he really is.”
McLintock originally proposed the show for BLT, thinking he wanted to play Greg or the three characters. He says he was happy to be cast in the three roles.
McLintock said Leslie was definitely the most difficult to master. The challenge is to feminize himself, but not too much.
“Tom is a Bronx guy, and Phyllis is so over-the-top they know it’s me in a dress. But if I do it well enough, for a second, they’ll believe it.”
McLintock said his portrayal of McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest” was definitely his “shining moment” in community theater, but the three roles in “Sylvia” provide a terrific opportunity for him to stretch as an actor.
“And I’m a dog lover, so what’s not to like?” he said.
With all these uncommon roles and with such a unique theme, how does a director approach this offbeat production?
Lee says when he first takes on a play, he reads it over and over to get an idea of how it should look. In the case of “Sylvia,” he decided to create an atmosphere that’s cartoonish but still real enough that the audience recognizes the characters.
“The characters are like caricatures of someone you know. It’s not so realistic.
“No one would give up a Wall Street lifestyle because of a dog. No woman is probably going to let a dog interrupt a marriage to the brink of divorce.”
He says he has to remind the actors “You don’t have to be so real.”
Lee says the first time he saw the show, it was funny, but the dog character actually scooted around on its hands and knees, and it felt contrived. The second production he saw was similar to his vision, but the dog character was too costumed.
“We’re trying to do more with suggestion,” he said.
Lee realizes it’s a risk doing a nonmusical for community theater, but that can also be a positive, because like “Cuckoo’s Nest,” it’s not something the wife has to “drag” her husband to.
“Anyone can relate to it,” he said.
It’s not only a show for dog lovers because of the subject matter but also because BLT has teamed up with Paws-Ability, a nonprofit dedicated to finding placement for rescued animals.
A portion of proceeds from “Sylvia” will go to Paws-Ability and help finding homes for more animals.