Written by D.L Coburn.
Directed by Ross Lehman.
At Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook.
If Life is a Card Game, Drury Lane Draws a Great Hand.
It takes vivid imagination and special skill for a playwright to skew the
laws of probability. Tom Stoppard did it when Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern
flipped coins 92 times and they always came up heads. Even earlier, D. L.
Coburn did it when quiet, unassuming senior citizen Fonsia Dorsey (Paula
Scrofano) won every Gin Rummy game against bombastic Weller Martin (John
Coins. Cards. What clever use of commonplace items spurs plot and reveals
Even before “The Gin Game” opens, we see an old man silently shuffle
around the stage, grumpily tiding up and showing little regard for
property by tossing a child’s toy into a wastebasket. Every gesture and
facial expression show Martin’s distaste. We are in a retirement
community, and while we will only meet two residents, the set cleverly
reveals a broader picture. A wide glass door at the back reveals filmed
scenes of the facility. Initially, they are static: a bedroom, a community
hall, and corridors. Later, they become populated with inhabitants
dancing, eating by bringing trembling forks to their mouths, and working
at crafts. Intermittently, we not only see them, but hear the music
accompanying their limited activities — including “Happy Birthday.”\
Martin and Dorsey command the foreground in a lounge porch area where they
strike up an acquaintance after she enters and bursts into tears. In a
gesture of friendship, Martin offers to teach Dorsey a card game. He is
initially dominant as he deals each hand of Gin Rummy, loudly slapping
down each card as he counts them out. She is far more polite and soft
spoken. Either Dorsey is a quick learner, or amazingly lucky as day-after
day she wins hand-after-hand — creating a fascinating juxtaposition.
First, she seems amazed (“beginner’s luck”), then a bit guilty about her
success, but ultimately grows more and more assured. What a fine way to
reveal character and show the building anger and frustration of the loser
as contrasted against the increased confidence of the winner. As they
play, they probe each other and learn backgrounds. Why doesn’t either have
company on visitor’s day? Initial exchange of facts morphs into a
battleground as they begin to parry verbal blows of belittlement. Harsh
moments mix with tender moments. Best of all, however, the drama cleverly
avoids potential “happily-ever-after” clichés.
Scrofano and Reeger — married thespians — are outstanding in their roles
and received a standing ovation. They follow in the footsteps of another
married pair of actors: Hume Cronin and Jessica Tandy whose Broadway
production, directed by Mike Nichols, deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize for
Drama in 1978 and was nominated for four Tony Awards. Others cast as the
sparring pair have included Charles Durning and Julie Harris; E.G.
Marshall and Maureen Stapleton, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, and
James Earl Jones and Cecily Tyson.
This play deserves to be seen more than once — at specific life stages —
gaining impact each time, as an older audience may feel growing empathy
with the characters.
Beverly Friend, PHD. Member, American Theater Critics Assn.
Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane at Oakbrook Terrace, 630-530-0111, Tickets $42-57, 1:30 p.m.
Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 5 and 8:30 p.m
Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 13.