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Review: ‘The Gin Game’ at MetroStage

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You observe a cozy setting, a two story structure slightly suggestive of institutional. There’s a gliding rocker and curtained windows that filter warm amber light, potted plants, scattered chairs, a walker, a cluttered shelf of reading materials and dappled light that hints at spring. Most of all, there is a card table that takes center stage at the Bentley Nursing Home, the setting for The Gin Game, the 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by D.L. Coburn.

Brought to the stage by producing Artistic Director, Carolyn Griffin, and directed by Thomas W. Jones II, it is a meticulous evening of theatre. The acting duo of Roz White and Doug Brown create a perfect fit. Conversation rings with familiarity but never lacks for surprises in timing, intonation and interaction as the two engage in the delicate dance of companionship centered on a card game.

Fonsia (Roz White) and Weller (Doug Brown). Photo by Christopher Banks.

Fonsia (Roz White) and Weller (Doug Brown) are newcomers and new to each other, and as the cards are dealt in happy rhythm, there is back-and-forth banter about the food, other residents, medications, the staff, entertainment and the menu of activities. The two are splendid and accidental friends, getting to know each other in carefree games of gin rummy. Fonsia is in her first week at Bentley Nursing Home and Weller has been there a few months. He walks with a cane and she clutches a purse. Fonsia’s every word draws in toward herself, nesting in on that purse, making her almost small, yet abruptly astonishing as she delivers honest truths. Weller spreads out wide, encompassing the room, taking over with gestures and convincing invitations hard to ignore, especially with the smack of that cane. The comedic timing is superb and freshly honest, spontaneous as if for the very first time. A few games down the road, the stakes get higher, the tension accelerates. The cadence of the card count becomes a rhythmic tirade. The two are now on a slippery slope of reveal and conceal, on the verge of crossing the line and with a dynamic that quickens.

Sound Designer William Wacker highlights fluctuating emotion with small samplings of jazz or underscores with ambient sound to signal time of day or changing weather. “Stolen Moments” a jazz standard composed by Oliver Nelson hints at the subtle passing moments. An Ellington composition sets the two in motion in a charming dance and the years peel away; two people as they once were.  Weak knees, diabetes and old age are now just part of the package.

Weller (Doug Brown) and Fonsia (Roz White). Photo by Christopher Banks.

The Set Design by Carl Grudenius and Shuxing Fan brings in earthy tones and centers a screened porch between a garden passage and a side entrance.  Screened doors accent observed entrances and exits. A shadow figure is seen through the curtained windows, and we watch, observing the form as it crosses, a peek of what may be taking place behind closed doors. Credit that effect and more to Light Designer Alexander Keen who surprises in flashes and quick shifts or understates with the generous warmth indicative of a Sunday afternoon or the cool tones of an evening falling to dark.

The Gin Game is a two person-two act play that has featured unique acting pairs. The Broadway production in 1977 starred Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Revivals have featured Julie Harris and Charles Durning and most recently Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.  MetroStage’s The Gin Game hits the mark in direction, acting and reveals a fine artistic team. It is a resounding success, one that brings forward timeless subject matter. The woman seated next to me whispered, “I saw this (The Gin Game) fifteen years ago. Now I live in a retirement community and it takes on a whole new meaning.” Age is part of the point, yet beside the point, and you may discover shadings of your own experience, bits and pieces of recognizable truth and layers that sometimes peel away or remain in place.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15- minute intermission

The Gin Game plays through March 12, 2017, at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 548-9044, or purchase them online.

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