‘ The Gin Game” is so well-written and insightful that it seems fresh three decades after it won a Pulitzer prize for drama in 1978. It endures because the times change, but human nature remains the same.
A two-person play by D.L. Coburn about aging and regretting, it also lasts because it is good theater, with two engaging characters and elements of comedy, drama and tragedy.
Fonsia is a sad septuagenarian recently “placed” in a dingy, dilapidated nursing home. On visiting day, when she has no visitors, she meets Weller, a crusty, cynical resident who says he’s suffering from “terminal old age,” as he plays solitaire on the porch, and he offers to teach her to play gin. As their games ensue, anecdotes offer clues about their lives, they complain about the depressing place they live in, and their personalities unfold.
The first act is a comedy, with funny lines. Although Weller’s temper flares unnaturally when Fonsia keeps winning the gin games, by intermission it looks as though this may become a romantic comedy.
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But in the second act, the negatives emerge — not just in the stories of their pasts, but in the characters themselves, and the play becomes a compelling drama with an enigmatic ending.
John Pillow directs this production, with Rae Stone as Fonsia and Tom Ammon as Weller. The acting is excellent as they bring both characters to life, not as stereotypes, but as complex people with their charms as well as their foibles.
Stone gives Fonsia a surface appearance of sweet vulnerability, but as her character builds, an inner strength and resolve is revealed. Ammon’s Weller is a likable curmudgeon at first, his dialogue laced with profanity and cynical comments that are often funny, so his dramatic turn in the second act is a surprise.
Both actors are just past middle age, and in real life a bit too young and good-looking for their parts, but they do a good job of acting old with their body language. Ammon limps and uses a cane, and Stone uses some padding, and her legs are wrapped with elastic stockings.
At the beginning of the first act, when they meet, she has her hair in curlers beneath a kerchief, and he’s in a robe. But the next time they get together to play cards, he looks sharp in a blazer and slacks and she’s in a skirt and her hair is coiffed. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy played the roles on Broadway, and Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore donned white wigs to do it on television.
The dialogue is clever at times and both funny and sad as Fonsia and Weller discuss and diss the conditions at the home, where they are “entertained” by choirs and magicians, and their belongings are stolen. They make excuses for having no visitors and lie, at first, about their financial circumstances.
The set is the porch of the home, with peeling paint and windows and doors to the inside, where activities are sometimes heard from within. Natalie Khuen is scenic designer. Bits of appropriate music set the tone for some of the action, beginning with Elvis and “Heartbreak Hotel.”
This is an adult play, especially poignant for older audiences, but insightful for younger ones, who may be in the same boat before they know it. The final moments ask, “What just happened?”