Mid-life crisis is dog-gone fun in "Sylvia"

Being a dog is no easy task.

Bristol Branson knows this for a fact.

For weeks the twenty-something brunette has romped, leaped through the air, jumped up on people’s legs and pawed viciously at the ground. Her face has been permanently molded into an ear-to-ear smile and glossed over optimism. She can’t help but wag side-to-side when walking down the hall.

“It’s been really paws on,” Branson said with a laugh.

Branson is among the actors and stage crew who had a howlingly good time preparing for Friday’s opening of the A.R. Gurney play “Sylvia”, which will run at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts through Feb. 26.

No, there’s no furry dog suits involved, and there’s very little being down on all fours. In fact, Bristol Branson appears quite humane in her role, but life at WICA as of late has gone to the dogs.

“Sylvia” is the story of empty-nesters Greg (Brian Plebanek) and Kate (Gail Liston) happily married and living in modern-day Manhattan. Their kids are off to college and everything appears to be going fine until Greg falls for Sylvia, a stray “labradoodle” he brings home from Central Park (Bristol Branson). Greg’s devotion to Sylvia becomes a bone of contention between husband and wife. Midlife isn’t the only great change for Greg and Kate. Sylvia invades and immediately tries to take over the couch and leave her mark in more ways than one.

“She’s like a daughter, really, and he’s the worshipful, adoring creature she can’t get enough of which really wears on Kate,” Branson said.

If audience members look closely at Branson during the performances they’ll probably pick up a few mannerisms of as 1-year-old American Bull Terrier pup. That’s from Nora, Branson’s own dog, who has turned into an inspiration and study model for the actress’ chracter.

“Sylvia has a lot of intelligence, but her dog instincts come through and she’s easily distracted, which causes a little trouble,” Branson said.

But, being in the Big Apple, there’s a city full of dog-loving New Yorkers willing to give a dogbowl-full of advice that adds colorful humor to this already dog-friendly script. Prolific playwright Gurney, who penned “Love Letters,” “The Dining Room,” “The Cocktail Hour,” and “Buffalo Gal,” among other works often gives an unabrashed look at the New York daily life. Case in point: Tom.

“He’s an average New York guy who know a lot about dogs and who’s well-read in authors like Ethan Frome,” said cast member Eric Mulholland of his Brooklyn accented character. “Tom offers Greg great insight; he’s a very serious pet owner, or as serious as he can be.”

In Sylvia, Gurney shares a colorful side of the big apple — its language. Cast and crew have been as upfront as a New Yorker with its presence.

“I have to say, it’s been a lot of fun yelling expletives, even if I don’t get it all completely right all the time,” Branson said.

Just as opinionated as Tom are Kate’s socialite friend Phyllis (Erika Hollum) and the androgenous therapist Dr. Leslie (E.M. Holly). Even the crew will get a leg-up as dogs during the scene transitions.

Branson said she’s having fun getting to know the tight cast in this tightly humored script.

“Eric is always so fun to work with because he has such a great bag of tricks,” Branson said.

“Sylvia” director Tim Rarick brings over 35 years of theater experience to Whidbey, including musical theater production and previous directing experience in another production of “Sylvia.” Before moving to Coupeville last year, he concluded a 16-year tenure as the theater director at North Idaho College, and has also instructed at the University of Idaho and at Lewis and Clark College.

This time around on Whidbey, Rarick has chosen a strictly black and white with minimal red “New Yorker” style set.

“It’s pretty appropriate, actually, these characters are sort of like cartoons themselves stepping out of the ridiculousness of the situations,” Mulholland said.

“This is a comedy that it addresses important issues such as midlife crisis in tender moments but it doesn’t linger and stay in that mode for long,” he said. “There’s just going to be too much humor that anyone who’s every had a dog can relate.”

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