In the right hands, a simple game of cards can uncover secrets, reveal hidden truths, and topple the best intentions of polite etiquette and civility. The Gin Game at MetroStage shows that a hand of cards can pack as hard a punch as boxing gloves.
Doug Brown, who plays Weller Martin, takes his seat at a rickety card table and peeks at his solitaire cards. He’s obviously got nothing better to do. Roz White as Fonsia shuffles in wearing a robe, slippers, and a head full of pink curlers, totally in her own world and unconcerned about her appearance. Her initial disheveled look is important as the play progresses since we see how Fonsia spruces up in the subsequent scenes spending time with Weller at the Bentley Nursing Home playing his ever present gin game.
They share pleasantries about their lives and families in a polite veneer of respectability. Over the course of numerous card games with Weller’s mounting losing scores, the genteel manners erode, the gloves come off, and the two are drawn in an almost deadly match of wills.
Director Thomas W. Jones II handles the mounting tension with point-counterpoint give and take. Just when you think Weller’s outbursts will drive Fonsia away, Jones adds just the right touch to make her return more plausible.
Doug Brown is one of the finest actors around and he inhabits the character’s movements, drives and unspoken motivations. In his tender moments grumbling about the dreary conditions of the nursing home or revealing his failed business ventures, he’s at the top of his game. His booming voice rises into a shout, though, long before it’s required and the scenes could use some tempering to enhance the escalating crescendo for the full ride.
The overall manifestations of Brown’s complex character are spot on. No one wears a hat like he does or looks as good in it while limping along on his cane for support. Brown embodies a man who has accepted the loss of years gone by and is settling for what’s left. Weller has learned to quietly sublimate his anger and deal with life’s day to day disappoints with a slight chip on his shoulder as innocuous as his limp, that is until he’s confronted with a novice player with an uncanny ability to win at his own game, and he can’t handle that. Brown calibrates the mounting seething resentment and anger that spills out as rage. With each loss, he takes on a fighting stance and wielding that cane suddenly adds an element of fear into the scenes. In fact, a bit of tussling does indeed take place, name calling, betrayals of trusted secrets and more.
As Weller slowly unravels, he takes more and more of his frustration and anger out on the unsuspecting Fonsia. Known for her soul-stirring vocals, White proves her acting chops here with a character that’s been tackled by the greats, starting with Jessica Tandy. At ninety, Cicely Tyson portrayed her on Broadway and even the unflappable Mary Tyler Moore gave Fonsia a whirl on a PBS special. White takes her time letting the character seep into her and maintains a stunning command of Fonsia’s journey.
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The Gin Game
closes March 12, 2017
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In her timid and halting entrance, she has no core strength, is bent over looking at her feet, totally unseen and disregarded. Interacting with Weller, joining his mind-numbing card games brings a spark to her eyes, straightens her up, and the unexpected thrill of winning catches her off guard. As the scenes progress, she feels differently about herself and life’s possibilities. Her delight as he counts out the cards each time is an endearing touch.
Her expressions transmute from delight to disappointment, to anger as the jut of her jawline slowly stiffens with resolve each time Weller angrily confronts her about her winning streak. White handles each brisk emotional assault with strength and fortitude. She delivers a crisp articulation of the staccato dialog with aplomb and turns away from each offer to play another hand like it’s surely the last rebuff. That Fonsia allows herself to be cajoled and wheedled back into another card game time after a disappointing time says a lot about her own insecurities— it seems like even a little bad attention is better than none at all. And so they do their give and take dance, even literally, to get through the day, wondering when it’ll be their last.
The set by duo Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan is a marvel of a central porch and carpeted segments on both sides with stairs leading down to the “garden”, actually the audience, that Director Thomas W. Jones II uses effectively.
The Gin Game is a master class of theatrical artistry. This fortieth anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize winning classic is a perfect showcase for these terrific actors and a perfect mount for MetroStage.
The Gin Game by D. L. Coburn . Directed by Thomas W. Jones II . Lighting Design and Master Elecrician: Alexander Keen . Set Design: Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan . Costume Design: Sigridur Johannesdottir . Sound Design: William G. Wacker . Stage Manager: David Elias . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.