Pick! ASR Theater ~~ “Sylvia” Shines at Sonoma Arts Live

By Barry Willis

A rambunctious dog drives a wedge between a couple of empty-nesters in Sylvia at Sonoma Arts Live through February 18.

Melody Payne delights and astounds as the lovable stray dog whose name gives the title to A.R. Gurney’s sweet story. David Shirk is perfectly cast as Greg, a middle-aged middle-manager who’s grown dissatisfied with his job and has begun taking unauthorized leave from work to bask in the sun in New York’s Central Park.

… Sylvia … It’s simply brilliant…

That’s where he meets Sylvia. It’s love at first sight for both of them. It’s also where he meets Tom (Mike Pavone), a gruff-voiced and opinionated dog lover whose big bruiser “Bowser” is Sylvia’s object of affection. As they watch their dogs cavort, Tom dispenses advice to Greg, much of it applicable to Greg’s marriage to Kate (Jill Zimmerman), an English teacher who hopes to enlighten inner-city students with Shakespeare by comparing his work to rap. Kate’s reached a breakthrough in her career. With kids grown and out of the house, she’s ready for the next stage in life—one that does not include the encumbrance of caring for a dog.

Jill Zimmerman, Melody Payne in Sonoma Arts Live’s “Sylvia”, February 2-18. Photos credit Miller Oberlin

Greg campaigns mightily for Sylvia—whom Kate dismissively calls “Saliva”—and ponders his future while Kate considers hers. Sylvia slowly but inevitably wins her over through sheer enthusiasm—repeated with outrageous comic energy by Payne as she sniffs, romps, growls, humps, and gives voice to everything we imagine that a dog might say if gifted with speech.

Payne’s ultra-high-energy performance absolutely carries this uproarious comedy. She’s simultaneously perfectly on the mark, on time, and precise in her movements while conveying a delightful lack of inhibition. Shirk wisely plays Greg as understated and hopeful if a bit morose—a masterful encompassing of character. Zimmerman, winner of a Critics Circle award for her performance in August: Osage County, is tremendous as the self-centered wife who resents an intrusion into what she had imagined as her personal renaissance.

Pavone is superb in multiple roles—not merely as a NYC tough guy, but as Phyllis, a kleptomaniac socialite, and as Leslie, an androgynous psychotherapist. Costume designer Kate Leland makes a serious contribution, not merely with humans—Phyllis is a scream—but especially with her depictions of Sylvia as both scruffy stray and pampered house pet.


Mike Pavone, David Shirk at SAL. Photos credit Miller Oberlin

Following last summer’s tour-de-force Dinner with Friends, director Carl Jordan has another hit. He takes this one in unexpected directions with musical interludes that other productions have never explored. Over the years, this reviewer has seen several iterations of Sylvia. SAL’s is orders of magnitude better than all of them — combined. It’s a riotous, wonderfully uplifting story and an absolute must-see for dog lovers—or for anyone who’s ever made an impetuous decision that proved enormously rewarding.

Don’t let Sylvia get away. It’s simply brilliant.


Aisle Seat Review Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com


Written byA.R. Gurney
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru Feb 18th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!