Updated: Jun 20, 2020
“…It’s a stark, marvelous drama about the battle of the sexes and how those battles don’t diminish with the effluxion of time.”
“Is there something wrong with you? I mean, are you sick?”— Fonsia
“Oh my, I should say so. I have one of the most advanced cases of old age in the history of medical science. The mortality rate's incredible.”— Weller
“I just thought there might be something you were getting treatment for.”— Fonsia
“No. You don't need anything special to qualify for Bentley. Old age is sufficient.”— Weller
“The Gin Game” — a two-person, two-act play by Donald L. Coburn that originally premiered in Hollywood in 1976, enters its second weekend at Newport Theatre Arts Center tonight with a two-hander set in a retirement home that proves to be more gripping than X Games or House of Cards. Directed by Kathy Paladino, it was Coburn's first play, and there could be no higher praise than to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which he did in 1978.
Before that award, though, the play had caught the attention and admiration of some very important people in the world of theater. When Hume Cronyn, one of the most respected stage actors of the twentieth century, read the play, he immediately wanted to take it to Broadway. The famed director Mike Nichols agreed to direct it and it then went on to garner a Tony nomination. When Dick Van Dyke saw the play on Broadway, he decided that he and Mary Tyler Moore had to perform it together someday. And in 2003, more than twenty-five years after the play premiered, the two performed the roles of Weller and Fonsia in a well-publicized PBS television production.
Newport Theatre Arts Center seems to have duplicated that scenario. Seated on an unused, enclosed sunporch addition of the Bentley Home for Seniors, a seedy nursing home, Weller Martin (Rick Kopps), a two-month resident of the home, is occupying himself with a game of Solitaire. A nearby bookcase is filled with seldom-read books and discarded newspapers. The porch is cluttered with items either stored or no longer used, such as old wicker couches and end tables, card tables, and broken equipment. It's a sunny springtime afternoon, a Sunday - visitor's day at the home.
As Weller sits at a card table wearing comfortable shoes, khaki pants, tee shirt, and an old, brownish wool bathrobe, he occasionally stares out into space and mutters to himself. An unlit cigar stub hangs from an ashtray. A folded newspaper and a pad and pencil sits in front of him as he continues to shuffle and place cards.
Suddenly a new resident, Fonsia Dorsey (Harriet Whitmyer), is heard wailing from the other room and wanders out onto the porch, still sobbing. As she settles down, the two become acquainted and Weller offers to teach Fonsia how to play gin rummy.
Weller, by the way, is a man who sees life in terms of winning and losing, and he is deeply enraged because life has apparently defeated him. However, he secretly feels he will get a chance to win at something with Fonsia, who, like him, still has her wits about her. Here, at last, is someone with whom he can have an intelligent conversation. Furthermore, she knows how to play, and now he will have a chance to prove his worth, since he considers himself an expert at the game.
Weller, however, is also a man of fierce spirit and who has to have the last say. He's not above resorting to low blows and hurt-filled insults to get the end result. Fortunately, his sharp, sarcastic, cutting nature often translates into humor.
In truth, the gin game is a way to keep his mind sharp and avoid falling into dementia, as "have the rest of the people in the nursing home." Although he has heart problems and carries a cane, Weller is energetic, but he tends to express his energy in angry outbursts and foul language. He can be charming when he wants something, however, his charm quickly wears off once he starts losing...especially to this inept amateur, and he uncontrollably ends up taking out his frustrations on Fonsia. She tries to tell him that it is just a game and not worth getting upset about, but to him the game is not just a game. It is a continuation of his life's story.
As they continue to play, they talk about their failed marriages, their children, and Weller's business. When Fonsia wins more games, Weller starts to curse loudly, and Fonsia declares that in her Methodist upbringing, her father never said a foul word. But Weller's inability to win a single hand becomes increasingly frustrating, while Fonsia becomes even more confident. What had been started as a friendly match takes on a deeper significance as Weller begins to view the game as a signifier of his waning virility. To detract from his losing streak, they discuss the cheesy entertainment that is constantly foisted upon the residents of the nursing home, and then, Fonsia’s real persona is revealed.
She is frail, but wiry and intelligent. Old, but time has not dismissed her and there is a vivid sense of life about her every fiber. She has a quick smile, a sharp tongue, piercing eyes – you don’t get the feeling that much gets past her. But she seems very alone.
Fonsia appears to be a fragile victim, a diabetic woman who has been abandoned by everyone she knows. No one comes to visit her. She says that her son lives too far away, in Denver. But eventually, the audience learns that her friends, if she really has any, live in an upscale nursing home that Fonsia cannot afford because she is on welfare. Her son actually lives in the same town but hates his mother too much to visit her. So Fonsia wears a mask of charm and reticence to hide her anger and intolerance. But underneath, she has an inflated, intense need to always be right...just like Weller.
Weller, too, seems well into his years, though not quite as old as she. He is medium weight and build and his eyes are not as bright as hers, and moves more slowly, with a slight hobble, using a cane that may also serve as an extension of his personality. Although beset with heart problems, his temper is explosive, a matter demonstrated very early on. When he upturns the card table in uncontrollable rage over her prowess with cards, you cannot but fear for her safety. You get the feeling he could easily have taken his fearsome rage to another level.
Gradually, each conversation becomes a battle, straining their brief friendship. They end up trying to expose the other's weaknesses, belittling the other's life, and humiliating each other. But it is a joy to see Ms. Whitmyer turn each triumphant declaration of "gin" into a skillfull tact of beguiling the audience's spirit along with her own, even though Mr. Kopps' character all the while builds his temper into apoplectic proportions.
The scene where they dance together is achingly tragic – it shows what they could have had, if they would only let it happen. As they both attempt to find their legs to assume the posture of the dance, they nimbly glide around the room in a smooth, perfectly timed waltz.
Fonsia has reached this desolate point in her life because no one has ever been able to live up to her expectations. She is relentlessly hypercritical, and always drawn into conflict with men. She is desperate to form a connection with someone, but she is unwilling to admit her own flaws or unable to overcome them.
It is impossible to tell from her behavior whether her game winning is the result of skill or very good luck. She acts as if she is forgetful and silly, but she is a fast study with infallible strategy and a poker face. She behaves graciously when she wins, and each win buoys her depressed spirits, but in truth her manner of winning is creating another failed relationship. She cannot help herself, even though she surely knows where her manipulations are taking her. She also cannot forgive herself for driving away her husband and son, so she takes it out on Weller, thus pushing everyone away until she has no one left.
Weller, likewise, blames bad luck for his business failure. His compulsion to play cards stems from his belief that he would have been able to keep his business, and he would not have had a catastrophic illness, if only he had been a little luckier. He cannot admit to himself that he is a loser: he has to win at something now, even if it's just a game. He can't accept that his skills and determination are not necessarily enough to be successful, so he looks for that intervening power—that evil twist of fate—that is keeping him from winning.
"Yes, Weller, God gave me the card." This line from the show is at the heart of Weller's dilemma. He is engaged in a struggle with God about his life. Weller exhibits a universal defiance and he thinks that God has dealt him a rotten hand in life. He even tries to will himself to win a game. Extremely perplexed, trying to figure out whether Fonsia's winning is a matter of luck, personal skill, or divine intervention, he can’t help but suspect that a higher power is at work, and he starts talking to the man on his shoulder, as if arguing with God. He blasphemes, sneers and snorts back at Fonsia, but he is, in fact, deeply in conflict in his soul with his own sense of religion.
It’s also likely that Fonsia is putting on an act of gentility when she says she is offended by Weller's habit of cursing, as she eventually bellows out those same colorful words at the end, unable to overcome her own character failings to achieve any sense of piety. In the final scene, when Weller’s anger triggers what appears to be a heart attack and he barely stumbles out of the room, he leaves Fonsia with guilt-ridden, wide-eyed shock, not knowing what to do next.
The acting really is magnificent, captivating the audience with rich dialogue and the sheer strength of their own personalities — and Kathy Paladino’s smart direction helps to draw out Coburn's underlying themes, proving this play to be much more than a mere card trick. It’s a stark, marvelous drama about the battle of the sexes and how those battles don’t diminish with the effluxion of time. Age cannot diminish built-in traits reinforced by society.
Assistant Directed by Floyd Harden, the Set is designed by Andrew Otero, Lighting by Jackson Halphide, and Sound by Brian Page. Costumes are designed by Joni Stockinger, and Technical Director is Josh Serrano, Produced by Rae Cohen. Publicity is Michelle Bendetti and PR is Stan Cohen.
Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Saturdays and Sunday Matinees at 2:00 pm., Jan 18 to Feb 17. Visit online for tickets at http://www.ntaconline.com/tickets
This show is Highly Recommended!