Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cloverdale: "The Gin Game"

The much anticipated inaugural season of Montgomery's Cloverdale Playhouse was realized on February 2, 2012 with a triumphant production of D. L. Coburn's two-character tragicomedy The Gin Game, winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize.

Under Artistic Director Greg Thornton's astute direction, Eleanor Kerr Davis and Bill Nowell -- two of Montgomery's most accomplished veteran actors -- received a rapturous standing ovation for their finely tuned performances in the "Elizabeth Crump Theatre."

Played on Mike Winkelman's detailed set -- a porch at a run-down retirement home -- and dressed in Danny Davidson's character-driven realistic costumes, Weller Martin [Mr. Nowell] and Fonsia Dorsey [Ms. Davis] engage in some 14 hands of "gin" while they recount their likes & dislikes, their past lives, and a number of secrets...frequently getting on one another's nerves in the process...all the while entertaining audiences with witty remarks and truthful assessments of their conditions.

The first Act is played largely for laughs, though underlying the humor of older people's outspokenness are some very real issues of growing older and surviving without the support of family. They meet on the porch to play cards [games of gin that Fonsia always wins, much to Weller's frustration], for example, to escape the lines of people in wheelchairs or their 10-foot-square rooms that contain all their worldly possessions. And, they are not at all interested in the continual "entertainments" that are put on for the residents or dance classes "when half of them can't get out of a chair". Each has found in the other a kindred spirit, and as we find out, a worthy sparring partner. Weller's curmudgeonly behavior while having always to be right, is matched by Fonsia's steadfastness and quiet determination.

For all their pretense of normality, it soon becomes clear that Fonsia's diabetes causes her a few spells, and Weller's bombast hides a growing dementia, and a climactic moment at the end of Act I signals more revelations to come. In Act II, the card games continue, but the stakes are higher as they reveal the truths of their pasts. "One more game" leads to a vindictiveness in a showdown that tests Weller's temper to the extreme.

Though each has been married & divorced, and each has had children, their families appear to have deserted them. Loneliness is becoming more real: they have little in common with anyone else at the retirement home, they have been deserted by their families [possibly due to their own stubbornness], and they resent having to go on welfare and lose their independence. So, they rely on each other.

Mr. Thornton interprets Coburn's well-crafted script with a quietly deliberate control that allows the plot details to be gradually introduced so the characters emerge in steps hardly noticeable and so truthfully that audiences identify with their problems and invest in their relationship.

And it helps to have at his disposal two veteran actors who, according to a program note "have appeared in over 100 productions around the River Region. [but] This is their first production together."

Mr. Nowell gives Weller a declamatory style that suits the character's self-absorption; he claims to know a lot, and insists on being right, so when Fonsia wins hand after hand of gin, his game strategy fails him. Is it "beginner's luck", or is she a shrewd player? And his constant interruption of her train of thought in dealing out the cards aloud -- "one, one - two, two - three, three" -- asserts his place of control.

Ms. Davis exercises consummate control over Fonsia's tolerance of Weller's demands, so when she retaliates in kind near the end of the play, we see her justification and feel with her the pain it causes. She communicates more with a gesture or a sly smile than mere words provide.

Throughout the play, Mr. Nowell & Ms. Davis portray their characters as duelists, he sometimes manic and she more often reserved; they are on opposite sides and play it as such. But the occasional moments of connection -- moments when truths are spoken without guile -- as they face each other across the card table are so honest and credible, that we engage in their lives willingly and address their issues as our own.