Reviewed by George Basler
Old age is on display in the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players production of The Gin Game, and it’s not pretty.
The production, which opened this past weekend, is a portrait of two lonely people who try to connect but ultimately fail because of character flaws that become glaringly apparent over the two acts.
While the play has laughs, at its heart, it’s an achingly sad look at two people who didn’t play their cards right in the game of life.
The Ti-Ahwaga production is a good, solid effort, well-directed by Bruce Brent with good, solid performances by Jane Nichols and Keith Nichols as the elderly Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin, who meet in a somewhat drab nursing home.
One strength of D.L. Coburn’s play, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is its complete lack of sentimentality. Don’t expect clichés about slightly befuddled but lovable old people. Fonsia and Weller, as written, are not very nice people.
The action takes place in the day room of the nursing home, where Weller, who considers himself something of an expert, cajoles Fonsia into playing gin to pass the time in a place they both seem to hate.
Fonsia, who claims to know nothing about the game, proceeds to win hand after hand as Weller becomes increasingly frustrated, angry and desperate. During the games, the two characters reveal their past histories, which explain why they are living out their lives by themselves, all alone, with no visitors on visitors’ days.
The Gin Game, which debuted on Broadway in 1978, has been a showcase for theatrical royalty, beginning with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the original production. Others who starred were E.G. Marshall with Maureen Stapleton and Charles Durning with Julie Harris. The roles are challenging ones, and Nicholses, married in real life, deserve credit for stepping into some very large shoes.
Keith Nichols, skillfully using an unlit cigar as a prop, effectively portrays the anger and bitterness that has overwhelmed Weller’s life. He also catches the character’s painful self-realization at the end of the play. But his performance lacks a sense of vulnerability or likeability, and that makes Weller a difficult character to care about.
Jane Nichols does an excellent job presenting Fonsia’s prim and proper façade. Her underplaying of the character contrasts effectively with her husband’s blustering portrayal of Weller. She also is effective in slowly revealing her character’s underlying rigidity and vindictiveness. But she falters in her foul-mouthed, cathartic rant at the end of the play. The mood change doesn’t quite work, and it lacks the emotional impact that it should have.
In fact, an overall flaw in the Ti-Ahwaga production is that it is slow to build any tension. When fireworks do arrive at the end of the second act, they seem a bit forced. However, possibly that’s the fault of Coburn’s writing as much as the performance.
In the end, The Gin Game is a pretty slight play. Its popularity has certainly been helped by the star power of Cronyn, Tandy and other luminaries who have taken on the play over the years.
All and all, while the Ti-Ahwaga production is not a totally winning hand, its strengths outweigh the weaknesses. A special shout-out should go to Todd Smith, whose set design catches the drabness of the unnamed nursing home.
The Gin Game is another commendable effort by this community theater group.
IF YOU GO: Performances of The Gin Game will be at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 29. Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors and $15 for students with ID). For tickets, call 687-2130, or visit www.tiahwaga.com. The Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center is located at 42 Delphine St., Owego.