When Donald L. Coburn’s two-character play Gin Game first appeared on Broadway in 1977, married couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy took on the roles of seniors Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, two mismatched elderly residents in a nursing home who strike up an acquaintance over a game of gin rummy.
Those who know the play know that it’s Fonsia who always comes out on the winning side of the games, infuriating Weller, and what you might expect to become a deep friendship, instead turns to a much darker place, with each belittling the other’s life in an attempt to get the upper hand.
Adele Robey, a founding member of Theater Alliance, co-founder of the former H Street Playhouse, and now of the Anacostia Playhouse, is taking on the role made famous by Tandy at Anacostia, and says she’s not surprised that a husband and wife were successful in playing these parts despite the animosity between the characters.
“You are very reliant on your partner and you need to have a connection and have each other’s back at all times for this show, if not, I don’t even want to think of the consequences,” she says. “Not only are you having a conversation for 90 minutes, but you are playing cards for most of that time. You need to be focused and have a trust.”
Although Robey had never seen a production of the Tony-nominated, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, she was familiar with it from reading the script years ago, hearing about the impressive revival done by Charles Durning and Julie Harris in 1997, and often seeing people doing scenes from it in various classes.
So, when a rental fell through at the Playhouse for January, she needed to find something to fill the space that would appeal to patrons.
“I was looking for something that was small and easily mountable and when I thought about Gin Game, I thought we could have a lot of fun if we took a look at this show,” she says. “It was one of those things where one thing led to another and I knew who I wanted to play against me.”
She didn’t have to look far to find her man—he was already acting alongside her in the Theatre Lab’s August: Osage County. In Dane Galloway, Robey found an actor she trusts, enjoys and shares a similar “warped sense of humor” with.
“We had never met before that play but we hit it off right away,” she says. “I felt that we would be able to get along for this production and he felt the same thing, and we have without letting it destroy our friendship. I could see where it could divide a couple—though we’re not a couple, we’re just two people, but it’s a hard play.”
When Robey first brought it up to Galloway, she wasn’t surprised at his initial response: “I’m not elderly!” he bellowed. After sharing a good laugh, the two realized that they would be the perfect partners to take on the roles.
Galloway is from Texas and Robey was born in Oklahoma, and they share a sense of that area of the country in common. Other than that, Robey says they share the same kind of world views, both have a strong work-ethic and of course, both love the theater.
Working with director Robert Lutfy, the two actors would offer ideas and play with the scenes before Lutfy started crafting his approach.
The Gin Game
Closes February 2, 2014
2020 Shannon Place SE
1 hour, 25 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
“This is sort of his Valentine to her,” she says. “He would be in tears sometimes. We did a lot of talking about the elderly and how people approach getting older—although Robert isn’t even 30 yet—and how people who aren’t of that age have a perception of what they go through and how they are treated. It was an interesting experience to really address that instead of just knowing that in an abstract.”
A surprising but much appreciated email that Robey received recently was from Coburn, the playwright himself, who thanked her for including his play in Anacostia’s season.
“It was wonderful to get that email and we’re trying to honor the spirit of his play for sure,” she says. “I think it ultimately turned into a terrific show that people who have seen it the first weekend have enjoyed.”
DCTS review of Gin Game