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This 'Gin Game' more subtle, hopeful

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

If I had gone to see The Gin Game as Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn did it on Broadway in 1977, I probably would have recoiled in disgust and dismay, much as many theater critics and patrons did then.

The script and reviews of the play describe two unlikable, elderly residents of an assisted living home shouting obscenities at each other over a card game that is a metaphor for their emotionally damaged and damaging lives, and the play ends in bitter loneliness.

But The Gin Game as cast and directed by Richard Michaelis (today and next weekend at The Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse), has a different feel. Instead of leaving the theater depressed and anxious, I left with a glimmer of hope.

In The Gin Game, Weller Martin (Sam Petricone) and Fonsia Dorsey (Lillian Falcone) are newly arrived assisted living home residents tentatively reaching out for companionship -- sharing gripes about the food, poking fun at the do-gooders who show up to entertain them and commiserating about their lack of visitors. We have good laughs at and with them, which eases us into liking and identifying with them.

As the gin game progresses, though, Weller's competitive streak, his angry, brutal drive to win, ethics-be-hanged, starts to emerge. Ms. Falcone's Fonsia is classic passive-aggressive, smiling sweetly and demurely, biting her lips in feigned dismay as she massacres Weller's ego and masculinity at the card table. Push Fonsia's button hard enough, though, and she's a snarling tiger.

These two are definitely on a collision course.

Still, this production seems gentler and more uplifting than the raw script suggests.

For one thing, Weller and Fonsia aren't portrayed as decrepit -- and, indeed, their characters' ages of 71 and 72 don't seem all that old these days (maybe that's because I'm a quarter century closer to 70 than I was in 1977).

For another, unlike Cronyn, who can do mean, sour, crotchety old guys better than anyone, Petricone has a friendly and gentle way about him, so his Weller comes across as more flawed and bewildered than malevolent. This Weller isn't a scary old geezer, he's a strong but frighteningly typical, hard-driving businessman reaping the consequences of his nasty behavior during his working years. This play may have been written 25 years ago, but we know we could be looking at those Enron and WorldCom fellows 25 years from now.

Likewise, unlike the wispy, delicate Ms. Tandy, Ms. Falcone radiates strength, so her Fonsia isn't meekly cruel, she's in command and, later, assertively angry and disappointed with the way her life has turned out.

(And we're reminded once more that the joy of live theater is seeing new and well-done interpretations of "established" characters.)

Still, no matter who does them or how they are done, Weller and Fonsia, like the classic heroes of old, suffer because they have failed to see that their own tragic flaws have brought them to grief.

The script suggests that the play ends in bitterness and defeat, but with just a few deft changes in staging and characterization -- a comforting arm around the shoulders, a worried look back, a small hesitation -- director Michaelis and his cast imply that things between these two senior citizens aren't over with by a long shot, that, at long last, they have looked their own demons in the face, and their friendship will survive and be stronger because of the truths they have just exchanged.

Playwright J.D. Coburn's use of a gathering storm to signal the changing tenor of the metaphorical gin game seems a tad heavy-handed, but the storm is well executed by lighting and sound designers Kevin Miller and Paul Schlobohm.

This is a play for grown-ups, and not just because of the strong language (g-- d--- and the "f" word, both of which are essential to character revelation). It's also a thoughtful and thought-provoking play that can generate long and productive discussions.

If you go

The Gin Game, a comedy drama in two acts, at The Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. Shows at 2 p.m. today and Oct. 20 and at 8 p.m. Oct. 18 and 19. Tickets are $10. Call (352) 683-5113.

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