By Blake de Pastino
NOVEMBER 23, 1998: Certainly children can be a pain in the ass, but despite their many irritating habits, we seem eager to acknowledge their potential to become thriving, independent members of society. Old people do not share that advantage. Our capitalist, utilitarian culture often treats our elders as disposable gadgets that have long outlived their utility. D.L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy, The Gin Game, now playing at the Adobe Theater, trips through the lives of two old people who are victims of this prejudicial treatment.
The play opens on the sun porch of the Bentley retirement home, a decrepit, low-maintenance kennel for the aged grandfathers and grandmothers who no longer have a place in our modern, streamlined, nuclear families. Weller Martin, played by Rick Allen, and Fonsia Dorsey, played by Virginia Hall-Smith, bicker over a game of gin. As they play, they chat; and as they chat, we learn that Bentley is falling apart. The underpaid staff steal regularly from the old folks, and the lousy meals give everyone diarrhea. It's not a pleasant place.
Weller and Fonsia see themselves as distinct from the other residents
at Bentley. The others have given up. They sit all day with eyes
glazed over, dumbly absorbing every bit of cheap, condescending
entertainment that the Bentley administration provides for them.
Youthful spirits trapped inside dying bodies, Weller and Fonsia
long for something else. They long to live like regular
Allen and Hall-Smith, both fine actors, exhibit true virtuosity as they shuffle and flick and deal and slap their cards while simultaneously spouting out Coburn's funny, pathos-saturated dialogue. The focal point of the action is in the cards. In the act of playing gin, Weller and Fonsia struggle to regain some of the dignity that's been denied them by being confined and forgotten in such a terrible, lonely place. Although no one's playing for money, the stakes in this game are high.
The story unfolds with startling, merciless realism. The audience waits for the extraordinary, for some bit of mysticism or absurdity to push the play into unexpected territory. The extraordinary never materializes, though, and The Gin Game, in its own humble way, is none the worse for it. Weller and Fonsia simply laugh and moan and cry and scream about the unfortunate hands that life has dealt them. In the end, without any need for embellishments or gimmicks, this quiet, no-frills production manages to place us under their heart-breaking spell.
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