Chicago Theatre Review
Dealt a Rotten Hand
The Gin Game – Drury Lane Oakbrook
It’s Sunday, another Visitors Day at the Bentley Home for the Aged, but out in the enclosed sunroom no one has come to visit either Weller or Fonsia. In fact, no one ever comes to visit these two lonely senior citizens. Because of different circumstances, they’ve each been forced to live out their remaining years all alone in this facility. Understandably, Weller has turned humorless and bitter, a cantankerous old poop put out to pasture in this “warehouse for the intellectually and emotionally dead.” When he meets Fonsia, a newcomer to the residence, Weller thinks he may have finally found a friend. He finds her carelessly dressed and crying, as if unaware of anyone else, and wandering heartbroken through her own solitude. As a way of making contact and being social, Weller initiates a game of gin rummy.
Fonsia explains that she’s never learned to play cards because of her strict Presbyterian upbringing, so Weller proceeds to teach her the game. Through an exchange of pleasantries, information is exchanged about their lives and then Fonsia trounces Weller in their first game. After numerous hands of gin rummy, with the seemingly innocent Fonsia beating Weller every time, Weller’s genteel manner gives way to mounting tension and violent outbursts. Soon this new friendship turns into a raging war of wills that builds until the final surprising moments of this play.
Directed by talented Windy City actor Ross Lehman, this production is of particular note for area theatergoers because it showcases the talents of longtime Chicago acting legends, Paula Scrofano and John Reeger. This gifted married couple, whose talents have been enjoyed both individually and together over decades of wonderful performances, return to the Drury Lane stage for this two-character Pulitzer Prize-winning play. They join the ranks of many other fine actors who’ve played these roles in the past, including the play’s original 1977 Broadway stars, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Other notable acting teams who have played these roles include Maureen Stapleton and E.G. Marshall, Julie Harris and Charles Durning and Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore.
D.L. Coburn’s drama premiered in 1976 in California, going on to be produced at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville and eventually opened on Broadway in the Fall of 1977. Twenty years later, the play was revived and subsequently toured the country. In 2015 a limited run in New York starred Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in a brand-new revival. Since its inception, Coburn’s two-act play has become a popular offering among regional and community theatres around the world, providing juicy roles for two talented, mature actors.
When John Reeger’s Weller enters at the top of the play, we discover a loner, an old man who primarily occupies his long waking hours with a book or games of solitaire. When he’s sure no one’s looking, however, he cheats, simply to give his ego a needed boost. From Mr. Reeger’s strong portrayal, we soon understand that Weller isn’t one of those kind, elderly gentlemen we all know, but an irritable curmudgeon for whom friendlessness has become a well-earned reward for his bombastic behavior. Reeger is strong and honest in his portrayal and, although not a likable character, he creates a very real man we can all recognize.
Paula Scrofano’s Fonsia holds the upper hand in this production. While at first she appears to be a sweet, little old lady, with whom we begin to empathize and care about deeply, by the second act we begin to see a very different person. As she comes to look forward to her gin games with Weller, Fonsia’s dresses become more attractive. She talks fondly about a sister she hasn’t seen in years and a grown son who lives far away. Fonsia is all by herself in the world, but claims she’s simply a victim of a busy, lonely world. Ms. Scrofano’s Fonsia is innocent and vulnerable for most of the play, a victim continually hurt by Weller’s rants and raves. However, this masterful actress gradually, subtly begins to evolve and shed her mask. By the end of this play we eventually see Fonsia’s true colors.
Ross Lehman has paced his production with a relaxed, natural rhythm, a realistic flow of the endless hours and days. As Spring plants begin to grow and blossom around the sunroom, so does the relationship between these two friendless outcasts. As a storm starts to brew outside, a tumult begins erupting between Weller and Fonsia. Soon their relationship becomes tempestuous and at the point of breaking. Staged upon Katherine Ross’ realistically designed set, enhanced with motion picture projections of nursing home patients by Mike Tutaj, Lehman has created a down-to-earth feel for this play. He employs two silent, scrub-clad attendants to deal with any prop requirements, and Ray Nardelli’s sound design reminds us that outside of the sunroom there are dance lessons, visiting church choirs and a blaring television set to entertain the residents. And, twice in the play, Lehman opens up this environment to include the audience aisles.
This sad, dramatic, yet often humorous story is a character study of two elderly loners for whom life has dealt a rotten hand. Weller’s insistence that Fonsia continue to play cards, even though she effortlessly beats him every time, is a metaphor for this frustrated man’s need to succeed somewhere in life. He’s one of those outcast individuals who’s lost all his power and control of those around him, and Weller needs some feeling of superiority to feed his fragile ego. Fonsia, we soon discover, isn’t about to give in easily and eventually their war of wills comes to an unexpected climax.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 22-August 13 by Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 630-530-0111, by calling TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or by going to www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.