You never really know what to expect when you first enter a retirement home. It might be tired and run-down in desperate need of some fixing up. It could be comfortable and well run. The Gin Game is a classic well-written character study set in a retirement home that sounds like the former, cold and uninviting. Fortunately, the Bay Theatre Company has presented us with a production like the latter, giving us a full and entertaining evening of theater. Bay Theatre staged this production as a benefit production in 2006 and invited the two stars to come back for a longer run.
The story is set on the enclosed porch of a retirement home. Weller Martin (Paul Danaceau) is a crotchety older man, a loner, whose chief passion is the game of gin. Fonsia Dorsey (Rena Cherry Brown) enters the home and soon meets and develops a friendship with Weller. During the course of the show, we (and they) learn more and more about the two characters, their families and lives, as Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin. Fonsia’s winning of every game crescendoes to a jarring climax.
It would be very easy for a two-person show about two residents of a retirement home to become wearing: the performance of its stars can make or break the production. Much like the original 1977 Broadway version which starred the classic husband and wife Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, this production succeeds because of the strong performances of Danaceau and Cherry Brown. Danaceau is quite strong as the cantankerous Weller. He straddles that very precarious line between making the character likeable enough for the audience to accept Fonsia’s attraction to him and still difficult enough to understand Fonsia’s fear and dread of his outbursts. Although he started out slightly cold and distant, he warmed up and delivered a powerful performance. He transitioned between the agreeable companion and the belligerent bad sport very smoothly.
Cherry Brown (you may remember her in Rorschach’s This Storm is What We Call Progress) delivered a truly breathtaking performance. She was able to capture the behavior and mannerisms of a 71-year old woman – she is somewhat younger – so credibly even for our Sunday matinee audience of mostly retirees themselves. She was able to convey so much more of the story and ambiance with her wonderful body language, facial expressions and vocal delivery – a captivating performance. She added much more depth to the character than a mere reading of the lines would convey and showed why she is a Helen Hayes Award winner. Danaceau and Cherry Brown are a truly winning combination and have a delightful chemistry that shows why Bay Theatre would welcome them back with this production.
However, the success doesn’t rest with the onstage company members. The supporting team members provide a strong background. The first thing that greets our eyes as we enter the theater is the realistic old porch and garden of the retirement home created by set designer Ken Sheats. The porch looks like it has seen better days and is filled with aging furniture, dying plants and used chotzkes. The garden is signified by a flagstone walk, dead leaves and a rickety swing that the audience, like the characters, feels is going to fall down any moment.
Artistic director Lucinda Merry-Brown continues to ably guide the Bay Theatre’s productions. She creatively uses the intimate theater space and manages to make a story about two aging seniors move smoothly and enthrall the audience. She adds rich details that entertain, such as the sound of dripping rain after the rainstorm that pauses when Fonsia puts her hand in the way of the supposed drip. Neither the characters nor the actors feel static. The characters have an assortment of mannerisms such as Fonsia wiping her feet every time she walks in from the garden, or meticulously putting on her reading glasses every time to play cards. Weller cuts through all conversation with his counting of the cards every time he deals or his ubiquitous swearing. The lighting designed by the son and father team of Preston and Steven Strawn helps add fullness to the show. The lights change with the time of day and the lightning storm add appropriate ambiance to the scenes that unfold.
With the cold weather around at this time of year, it is well worth a trip to Annapolis to see this show. It will feel like stepping in out of the cold into a warm, inviting fire lit home where the house staff will take care of you and the show will entertain you.
The Gin Game
By D. L. Coburn
Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne
Produced by Bay Theatre Company
Reviewed by Ted Ying
Running Time 1:50 including one 10-minute intermission
Where: Bay Theatre, 275 West St. Annapolis, MD 21401
When: Performances through March 28. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM plus Saturday, March 28 at 3:00 PM
Tickets: $30 for adults, $25 for seniors/students with identification. Call for group discount information
Information and Reservations: 410-268-1333, [email protected] or