By Karen Isaacs
I’m still asking myself a question: Why, despite the fine acting of two legends – James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson – did I find The Gin Game so uninspiring?
It was not the acting. Both Jones and Tyson are terrific; yet the show never truly engaged me. I was too aware I was watching these legends act together for what could be the last times they appear on a stage. After all, Tyson is ninetyish and Jones in his mid-eighties. How long will they have the stamina for eight performances a week?
The Gin Game by D. L. Coburn began life in LA, but the 1977 production at Long Wharf Theater with Jessica Tandy and her husband Hume Cronyn starring went on to Broadway. It received numerous Tony nominations (and Tandy won Outstanding Actress) and the play won the Pulitzer. A later revival in 1997 starred Charles During and Julie Harris, in one of her last stage appearances, and also received several Tony nominations.
I expect that Tony nominations are in line for both Jones and Tyson.
Though it won the Pulitzer, The Gin Game has not won many best play awards. Perhaps it is easy to see why.
The play is set in a nursing home that houses many welfare (now we might say Medicaid) recipients. Fonsia Dorsey has just arrived. She meets Weller Martin who has been there some time and they strike up a contentious friendship. Weller complains about the activities the home offers – dances, visits by local choirs and musical groups, etc.
Fonsia tells Weller about her son who lives in Denver and other things about her life and Weller shares that he was a business man who has lost touch with his children due to a divorce. It seems that Fonsia is also divorced and remains venomous about her ex-husband.
Weller convinces Fonsia to play a game of gin; she’s played cards before but isn’t sure of herself with gin.
The gimmick to the play is that Fonsia always wins. Every time they play – and they play over a period of weeks or months – she wins. This obviously gets on Weller’s nerves; he considers himself a good card player
As the games go by, more about each of them is revealed; they force each other to face the truths they have been trying hide for many years. Like most of us they have told themselves fabrications to help them get through the days and months. These secrets become weapons.
By the end of the play, each is wiser about him or herself, but also more alone than ever.
It may be that as you age, The Gin Game becomes less an entertainment and more a nightmare. Most people would not want to spend their remaining days in a facility like the one housing Fonsia and Weller. Nor would they want to become the other patients who Weller describes – they are more disabled in both mental and physical ways. It is an uncomfortable idea. Both Weller and Fonsia are lonely and in many ways, they have created their own futures.
The set by Riccardo Hernandez who also created the costumes, immediately sets the place. The porch of the home is littered on the right side of the stage with what is almost garbage – wheelchairs, walkers, chairs are piled up. This is not a luxurious place; it looks deteriorating. One can only imagine what the rooms must look like and how the food must taste. No staff is seen because the home is probably woefully understaffed.
Yet, the two residents do take some pride in their appearance; they have not given into their circumstances. Fonsia and Weller look neat though as the play progresses their appearance becomes more casual.
Director Leonard Foglia has keeps the pace going. When dealing with two such experienced actors, it was surely a collaborative effort.
Jones displays his magnificent voice – when he roars in anger it is that of an aging lion. Yet at the end, you see a man who is chastened if not broken. He also displays his physicality – in turning over tables and chairs when the constant losing and Fonsia’s barbs become too much.
Tyson gives Fonsia a voice that somewhat childlike but also grating. You are not necessarily sure why Weller spends so much time with her; may be his tirades have driven away everyone else. Under the surface and slowly brought to the fore is Fonsia’s mean streak; this is not a nice woman.
Yet the two create some very touching moments – a few minutes of dance, a few memories.
But at the end, you feel sorry for them but you are not sure you like either character and you pray to God that you will not end up as they have.
The Gin Game is at the Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th Street for a limited run through January 10. Tickets are available through Telecharge.