The Pulitzer Prize winning 1976 drama by D.L. Coburn holds a position of prestige in American drama. It was famously acted by Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy and directed by Mike Nichols.
It uses both humor and pathos to explore the lives of curmudgeonly Weller Martin and prim and proper Fonsia Dorsey, who are living out their years in a welfare home for senior citizens.
In it, this unlikely pair meet on the porch of the ramshackle home and begin to play a card game of gin rummy. It becomes quickly clear that the two struggle with loneliness and loss. They shun the choirs and singalongs going on inside the home. Instead, they prefer the outside.
But this is not a nice porch. It’s rather like the area where discards are placed before they find their final resting place in the garbage pile. We see rusting outdoor furniture, some crutches, an old wheelchair and even a portable potty.
And, like all the other expendables, we see Weller and Fonsia.
Starring Ross Bickell and Margery Shaw, and directed by Riverside’s Allen D. Cornell, this moving production is as good as it gets. Together, Bickell and Shaw have that comfortable, confident stage ease which is earned only through years on the professional stage.
Ms. Shaw, who portrayed Fonsia in Riverside’s 1994 production of “The Gin Game,” brings her signature light, almost poetic touches to her character’s many layers. Her Fonsia is a complicated woman who has led a life filled with despair.
Mr. Bickell, who has a long list of credits including both Broadway and Off-Broadway, brings an intense urgency to Weller, a successful businessman who has lost everything. He disappears into the role of Weller, moving casually about the stage then suddenly bursting into fits of anger.
Both actors stay well away from the trap of allowing characters to feel sorry for themselves. Indeed, they rail against their plights and almost flirt with one another, as if in some senior citizen version of a cotillion.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of funny moments in this play, especially when uptight Fonsia, having given up on trying to stop Weller from swearing, lets out with a few savory curses herself. But truly, these portrayals are so well crafted, from their characters’ comic banter, to some rather cruel observations and finally into the final moments of pathos.
The drama is deceptive in its simplicity. When it is well produced, like it is here, “The Gin Game” overflows with complex human issues. As any good drama does, it prompts us to examine our own lives and values.
Indeed, Riverside Theatre proves once again that when you look for good, taught drama well told, you need go no further than Vero Beach.
Photo by Rob Downey.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Gin Game” runs through March 25 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Dr., Vero Beach. Tickets are $40. Call 772-231-6990 or visit www.riversidetheatre.com.