Director Nancy Rich Says A.R. Gurney’s Award-Winning 1995 Comedy, Sylvia, Is a Real Howler

Sylvia stars Clare Vestal (front) as Sylvia, with Jim O'Brien as Greg and Christine Rogers as Kate (photo by Nancy Rich)
Sylvia stars Clare Vestal (front) as Sylvia, with Jim O’Brien as Greg and Christine Rogers as Kate (photo by Nancy Rich)

In these trying days, we all could use a comedy, right? And this one is a real howler. Director Nancy Gardner Rich talks about the Holly Springs Community Theater’s production of A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, a co-produced with the Holly Springs Cultural Center and the Fuquay-Varina Arts Center.

Q: So Sylvia is a comedy?

As a director, let me say, “I really, really hope so”! When I was asked to direct this wonderful play by A.R. Gurney, I jumped at the chance. I love me some Gurney! A.R. Gurney and Neil Simon are the two best comedy playwrights of their generation. Many community theaters produce Gurney plays, so most theatergoers have seen at least one, such as The Dining Room or Love Letters.

One of my personal favorites is a more avant-garde Gurney play that my husband Rod Rich directed for Raleigh Little Theatre called Scenes from American Life. Helping Rod with his play got me hooked on Gurney. Sylvia is a jewel of a play. Gurney manages to create a nice balance between laugh-out-loud comedy and a tender look at the importance of love in the modern world.

Q: What it is about A.R. Gurney that you appreciate?

Every line in a Gurney play is so carefully crafted — and with no waste. His characters are interesting and grounded in reality. And the dialogue? Effortless. Especially when you have an experienced cast. When you dig down, you realize that Gurney is paying close attention to every detail — especially the musicality of the words. Just like Shakespeare, the comic timing is built-in. If you follow Gurney’s recipe, you get great results.

Q: What is Sylvia about?

It’s about a married couple, Greg and Kate (played by Jim O’Brien and Christine Rogers as Kate) — empty-nesters who have finally got a place in the city and delivered the last kid to college. We find out that Greg hates his job and has had a falling out with his boss. Meanwhile, Kate is really beginning to bloom in her long-delayed career. Can you say, “Mid-Life Crisis”? Insert dog here. The relationship between Greg, Sylvia (Clare Vestal), and Kate soon takes on many aspects of a love triangle, although Kate is at first the only one who really understands what is happening. Her husband sees no problems with having a dog in a small New York City apartment. She sees nothing but.

Q: Why do you think Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina chose this show?

Sylvia is a love story and Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. Granted, it’s an unconventional love story about a man’s relationship with a stray dog that adopts him in Central Park. His devotion to her, to the dog Sylvia, challenges his decades-old marriage in exactly the way a conventional affair might — except in this case, the other female lives in the couple’s home and pees on their floor. Of course, in the end, as all romantic comedies should, love wins out. But it’s a close race in determining whose love for whom will win.

Q: An actor plays the dog. How does that work?

Greg and Kate, like all pet owners, anthropomorphize their animal. They speak to Sylvia like a person, and they imagine her responses as more or less logical and grammatical. Meanwhile, Sylvia goes about being very much a dog — although a speaking dog who makes no bones about what she thinks and how she feels about things. Clare Vestal, the actor who plays Sylvia, is a dancer; and the part of Sylvia is very kinetic. The audience sees the dog through the eyes of Greg or Kate or both. So sometimes Clare’s physicality is pure “dog,” and sometimes she moves around like a human.

Q: Tell us about the cast.

I discovered Clare Vestal back in December when I saw Raleigh Little Theatre‘s production of Cinderella. Clare played a Fairy Helper — a featured dancing and singing role that requires great comic timing. Christine Rogers and I worked together in The Women at the Cary Arts Center; and I was delighted that she auditioned, because Christine is a bit of a chameleon. I knew she would be excellent in a comedy ensemble. For the role of Greg, Jim O’Brien has the comedy chops and the acting chops. This is my first time working with Jim, but I have enjoyed seeing him perform in shows such as The Odd Couple in Wake Forest and as King Triton in The Little Mermaid in Garner.

Rounding out the ensemble is Tony Hefner as Tom, Phyllis, and Leslie. Tony’s really good at shows where he plays different characters, like The 39 Steps and Stones in His Pockets. The script allows the director to cast the supporting roles separately. But many productions use a single actor to play all three roles. In an interview (and I wish that I could cite it) Gurney was asked, “why use just one actor to play the roles — Tom, Phyllis, and Leslie?” And his answer (supposedly) was “Because it’s fun!” And it is. It’s fun!

Q: What have been your biggest challenges as a director?

It certainly hasn’t been my cast or my crew or the producers. They have all been amazing. Every director who’s working on a show right now will tell you their biggest challenges are COVID and the weather. We’ve taken every precaution to stay safe during rehearsals, and we feel very lucky that no one has tested positive, or worse, gotten sick. It seems like every day I read online about another local show cancellation.

The snowstorm caused us to miss rehearsals, but we were able to rehearse over Zoom, which worked out pretty well for everyone. Although not nearly as good as rehearsing on a stage and in-person, Zooming was an opportunity to separate the physical comedy from the spoken word, leading to some discoveries and also firming up line memorization for the actors.

Q: A play about a dog — is this a show for the whole family?

Sylvia is very much an adult comedy, with some sexual references and frequently salty language — mostly from the dog, who expresses herself very directly and without filters. If you’ve ever owned a dog, you’ll relate. And if you’ve ever loved a pet, it is almost impossible not to feel moved by this play.

Q: What are the production dates?

We play at Holly Springs Cultural Center on Feb. 3-5 and at Fuquay-Varina Arts Center on Feb. 17-19. Tickets to a romantic comedy make a great Valentine’s Day gift — just sayin’.

For tickets Feb 3-5 at the Holly Springs Cultural Center, click here or call the box office at 919-567-4000.

For tickets Feb 17-19 at the Fuquay-Varina Arts Center, click here, or call the box office at 919-567-3921.

Triangle shapeshifting comic actor extraordinaire Tony Hefner plays multiple roles in Sylvia (photo by Nancy Rich)

A.R. Gurney’s SYLVIA (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 3-5 in Holly Springs and Feb. 17-19 in Fuquay Varina), directed by Nancy Gardner Rich and starring Clare Vestal as Sylvia, Jim O’Brien as Greg, Christine Rogers as Kate, and Tony Hefner as Tom, Phyllis, and Leslie (Holly Springs Community Theater at the Holly Springs Cultural Center in Holly Springs and the Fuquay-Varina Arts Center in Fuquay-Varina). 2022 SEASON: THE PRESENTER: THE VENUES: Holly Springs:,, and Fuquay Varina:,,,, and THE SHOW:,,, and THE SCRIPT (excerpts): THE PLAYWRIGHT:,,, and DIRECTIONS: Holly Springs: Fuquay Varina: COVID REQUIREMENTS (right-hand column): Fuquay Varina: TICKETS: $14 ($12 students and seniors). Holly Springs: Click here to buy tickets. Fuquay Varina: Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: Holly Springs: 919-567-4000 or Fuquay Varina: 919-567-3921 or PLEASE DONATE TO: Holly Springs Cultural Center and Fuquay-Varina Arts Center.

By Triangle A&E

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