TBT comedy gives us life through the lens of a dog

Ever wonder what your dog is thinking when you come home at the end of the day and he greets you exuberantly at the back door? Or how about when a cat crosses his path during a walk in the park and he strains furiously at his leash trying to pursue said feline?

Thunder Bay Theatre’s current production of “Sylvia” clears up the mystique with its amusing take on the owner/dog relationship. Written by A.R. Gurney, the comedy features a pair of empty nesters and their newly acquired stray, a lab-poodle mix called Sylvia who’s able to converse with them in human terms.

Sylvia not only talks, she lets the audience know what’s going on in her doggie brain. She also dresses in regular human clothing with a few telling details like a choker encircling her neck or a feminine tutu after she’s spent an afternoon with the pet groomer. It’s Sylvia’s mannerisms, however, that come off strictly dog-like. She sniffs, she scratches and she tries to hop on the forbidden furniture. Besotted with her new owner, she casts adoring eyes on him and longs to stick like velcro to his side.

The over-arching premise of the show is naturally funny, but made even more so with absolutely the right person cast in the physically demanding role of the dog. TBT core company member Puja Tolton does a fantastic job as Sylvia. She’s amusing from start to finish, although a favorite moment has to be when Sylvia goes ballistic after spotting a cat crouching under a car. One moment Sylvia’s happily cavorting in the park with her new owner, and in the next she lets loose on the cat, her potty mouth hurling expletives left and right.

Seasoned actress Nickie Hilton and newcomer Curtis Brown play the couple whose kids are now grown. They’ve moved into the city where Hilton’s character, Kate, puts all her energy into an inner city teaching position. Kate doesn’t want to be bothered with a dog and in fact, feels jealous and threatened by the presence of Sylvia in their lives. Kate doesn’t mince words letting her husband know what a bad idea she thinks Sylvia is. Hilton has a real knack for playing these kinds of stern and strong female characters like Kate.

Meanwhile, Brown’s character, Greg, has become disillusioned with the corporate rat race. He’s finding ways to duck out of the office and end up at the park, pondering his future. It’s there at the park that the bouncy Sylvia finds and adopts him. Brown as Greg makes for a believably affable husband and a proud, doting dog owner.

The fourth performer starring in the show is TBT intern Nick Hartman, who takes on three different roles as intended in the script. First he’s a very convincing know-it-all dog lover Greg encounters at the park, then a comical female friend of Greg’s wife and finally, a very odd therapist trying to help the couple who’s marriage has been upended by Sylvia’s arrival. Hartman does a good job with all three roles, even if the third character he portrays lists more towards the absurd side as opposed to the genuinely funny.

All the conflict between the characters gets a tidy wrap-up by show’s end, and all takes place upon a well-conceived set, executed by Technical Director Joe Simpson. The set handily serves both form and function, including a mechanized piece that rotates as needed.

TBT Artistic Director Kevin Reams has put up another in a string of entertaining shows. It’s always nice to laugh, but especially so when winter keeps dragging on and on here in Northeast Michigan. To add a little lightness to this otherwise bleak time of year, catch a performance this week only, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For reservations, call the box office at 354-2267.