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WVPT productions brings together WVU students, alumni, faculty

Cast and director of Sylvia

When the curtain opens June 21 on West Virginia Public Theatre’s production of Sylvia, it will serve as a reunion and homecoming for an entire cast with roots at West Virginia University. 

The play follows New York empty nesters Greg and Kate. When Greg finds a dog – Sylvia – the couple begins bickering over the dog's effect in their marriage. Written by A.R. Gurney, the comedy playfully discusses love, friendship and man's best friend.

When it came time to select actors, Sylvia director Jerry McGonigle, professor of acting and directing at WVU, found the best fit for the roles in generations of actors with ties to the university.

“The auditions at first frustrated me because I couldn’t find the right chemistry,” said McGonigle. “I woke up one morning and thought back on all the students I’ve taught and friends I’ve worked with and suddenly it was crystal clear. I made a few phone calls and fortunately, everyone was available.”

The production’s four-legged namesake is brought to life by WVU graduate acting student Cassandra Hackbart. After graduating from West Liberty University, Hackbart decided to attend WVU for grad school for the specific, conservatory training.

“The most important thing I've learned at WVU is to never be afraid and the sky's the limit,” said the Preston County native. “I've been given such wonderful and an array of eclectic opportunities in this program. I've been encouraged to act, sing, write, create performance art and tell the world my story." 

A staple in recent productions in the School of Theatre & Dance, this is Hackbart’s first role with WVPT.

“Watching the professional quality of the [WVPT] shows last season made me very excited to pursue auditioning for this season,” Hackbart said. “Come see Sylvia to learn a fun-loving, new perspective on how an animal can change your life.”

Joseph Olivieri plays Greg, who is enamored with his new four-legged companion. Olivieri is a member of the Actors Equity Association and heads the undergraduate acting program at University of California, Los Angeles. From 1989 – 97, Olivieri coordinated the undergraduate and graduate acting programs at WVU.

“I’ve known Jerry [McGonigle] since 1980, we went to grad school together and we taught together,” Olivieri said. “He called and said he read a bunch of people for this role, but no one really fit and he thought I would.”

To further entice Olivieri to take the role, McGonigle let him know that two former graduate students, Cathy O’Dell and Joe Mortimer, had accepted roles in the production.

“Cathy was a grad student when I was a teacher here and I think the world of her, and Joe was also a grad student when I was here and we’ve become good friends, I see him in L.A., so I just thought how can I say no to this?”

O’Dell received her master’s in acting from WVU and is now an associate professor of theater in the School of Theatre & Dance. She is a WVPT veteran, with previous roles acting in the company’s productions of Romeo and Juliet and Not Someone Like Me. 

On her reasoning for being involved with this WVPT production, O’Dell said “The show – Sylvia – and an opportunity to work with this particular director, cast and crew.” 

The final cast member, Joe Mortimer, plays three roles in Sylvia. A Philadelphia native, Mortimer received his master’s degree in acting at WVU. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he makes his living as a professional voice actor.

When asked about the most important takeaway from his time at WVU, Mortimer said “I would have to credit the time and energy we spent on Shakespeare. I currently work as a professional voice actor and there is a good deal of breaking down of the text that needs to happen even in a 15 or 30 second commercial. There are specific rules that apply to Shakespeare's text, and oddly enough I find myself applying those rules to commercial copy all the time.”

Mortimer agreed with the rest of the cast that the circumstances made joining the production a no-brainer.

“Cathy and I were classmates, and we always seemed to wind up in shows together when I was here, so that alone probably would've have been enough to get me to come back,” Mortimer said. “But the combination of getting to act with Joe, who was my teacher back then, and be directed once again by Jerry, it was just too good to pass up. I've always loved coming back to Morgantown.”

Sylvia runs June 21 – 25 at the Creative Arts Center. Tickets can be purchased by visiting a WVU Box Office, calling 304-293-SHOW or at Ticketmaster.com