OWATONNA — The Owatonna High School drama department’s spring production, “Sylvia,” is unusual in multiple respects: first, in that a student — Nick Hagen — has co-directing credit, and, secondly, the fact that the namesake character is a dog who behaves very, very much like a human being.

“I sum it up as a pretty good rom-com,” Hagen said. In the end, everyone comes to realize “a dog can be the perfect connection of a happy family.”

In A.R. Gurney’s play, Greg and Kate are a pair of recent empty nesters who relocate to New York City; while Kate uses the opportunity of a childless home to advance her teaching career — including focusing on integrating William Shakespeare into the junior high curriculum — Greg is bored in his corporate job until a chance meeting with Sylvia in a park reanimates his purpose in life, he said. He falls in love instantly with Sylvia and brings her home, but his wife — who actually likes dogs — doesn’t want one at this point in their 22-year marriage, creating the central conflict in the play.

“Now is not the time for a dog” in Kate’s estimation, said junior Kenna DaMitz, who plays Kate. “She’s getting her career on track, and now (the dog) is something else she has to do.”

Because Kate is opposed to the adorable Sylvia, the main hardship for DaMitz in her performance is preventing Kate from becoming the villain, she said. “This is the hardest show I’ve done, but it is worth it.”

Kate represents the biggest part yet at OHS for DaMitz, so “this is a very important show to me,” she added. “I love theater.”

Kate has “dragged” Greg to NYC, and, by moving, he’s taken a job that makes him profoundly unhappy, said Sheldon Jensen, who plays Greg. Indeed, Greg only happens to be in the park where he encounters Sylvia because he erupted at his boss and needed to compose himself.

In his scenes with Sylvia, Jensen must often remind himself to treat Sylvia like a dog, he said. For example, instead of saying, “Come here,” he’ll pat his thighs and command, “Come.”

Finding the balance between human and canine behavior is the main challenge in the role of Sylvia, said senior Kyra Rahn. “I have to make sure it’s not too human.”

When Sylvia “barks,” Rahn shouts, “Hey, Hey, Hey,” which “makes sense, actually,” Rahn said. The audience also knows how Sylvia feels even when Rahn doesn’t speak, since her countenance changes — from pouty to concerned to ecstatic — at a moment’s notice, depending on her status within the home.

Rahn’s favorite scene is one in which Sylvia spots a cat and “goes absolutely ballistic,” she said. “It’s a whirlwind of chaos with funny blocking.”

Sylvia ranks among Rahn’s favorite roles, because it’s so “cleverly written,” there’s plenty of physical comedy, and Sylvia is “very active, which I love,” she said. She’s taken renewed interest in watching her own dog, an energetic Spaniel, for tips on actions, and she’s using her own dog’s tag, leash, and toys in her performance.

Even though Sylvia “says what she thinks — and she doesn’t always think” — the dog also “has her motives,” Rahn said. “There’s a reason she goes up to Greg in the park,” and she does attempt to “one-up Kate.”

Kate sees Greg developing an unhealthy relationship with Sylvia — essentially an emotional affair — as the dog takes his attention away, Hagen said. “It’s kind of like the older guy with the younger woman.”

Jensen appreciated the skeleton cast of “Sylvia,” as well as the play’s sentiments and execution, he said. The Greg-Sylvia pairing ultimately becomes “a beautiful man-and-dog relationship.”

Sylvia resurrects Greg’s “basic instincts,” he added. “She’s changing him for the better, mostly, eventually.”

The small cast leads to Jacob Wright actually playing three roles, Tom, an “obnoxious New Yorker,” Phyllis, a middle-aged woman and friend of Kate’s without much patience or use for the dog, and Leslie, a therapist testing the boundaries of gender identification, Wright said. Obviously, in playing a man, an older woman, and a person with a fluid gender, it’s important to give each one a distinct voice and posture so one doesn’t bleed into another.

Fortunately, Wright was part of a trip the OHS concert choir took to New York City last month, so he was able to observe a few folks like Tom in their natural states, he said with a laugh. “The accent is bold and brassy, and the way he sits — he fills whatever space he’s in.”

For Phyllis, on the other hand, he went to an obvious — but prudent — source: his grandmother. He’s also been furtively observing some of the older ladies at his church to nail mannerisms.

Hagen, a senior, has been thinking about directing for years, because “I wanted to shape a show,” and “I’m very excited to be on the other side of theater,” he said. Erik Eitrheim, the head of the high school’s drama department and director of shows, has let him take as much command as he wishes, for which Hagen is eminently and eternally grateful.

“I didn’t realize how much work you have to put in before (the show) takes off,” and he’s discovered that “blocking — how you want the show to look on stage — is a huge chunk” of directing, he said. Additionally, while offering tips to actors — even though he’s a peer — “is awkward at first, we got through that.”

Interestingly enough, directing has provided Hagen with even more appreciation for acting, he said. “I’ve got to get on stage again to try all these new things I’ve learned.”

Fortunately, Eitrheim knows well the balance of going back and forth between acting and directing, so he can advise Hagen.

“The trick is not to be a director when you’re acting,” Eitrheim said. “Accept you’re not in control of everything, and don’t always try to take the reins.”

On one hand, acting is easier, because “you only have to worry about your performance,” he added. On the other, “when the lights go up, the director sits back, but the actors need to actually do it.”

“Sylvia” will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, as well as well as 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets--$7 for adults and $5 for students—will be available at the doors one hour before showtime, and this play is rated PG for some mild language.

Those involved with the production believe “Sylvia” will hold special appeal for dog owners.

“I’m especially excited for dog owners to see it,” Rahn said. “They will relate to so many things in it.”

Wright echoed those sentiments, noting there’s a special and unique relationship between dogs and owners.

“Please come see it,” he said. “It’s wonderfully humorous, but also heartfelt.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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