The game of life

Gothic North challenges stereotypes of the elderly with The Gin Game

Sharon Zenz and Michael Peters in <i>The Gin Game</i>.

Sharon Zenz and Michael Peters in The Gin Game.

Rated 3.0

He’s irascible. She’s sweet. He cheats at solitaire, gnaws on his cigar and swears under his breath. She folds her hands primly and requests that he not use the Lord’s name in vain. But when fate or circumstance throws them both together on the back porch of the nursing home, they’re forced to find a way to get along.

From the moment the two elderly characters in D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer-winning play The Gin Game make their entrances on Gothic North’s stage, we’re pretty sure we know what’s going to happen. At first glance, they’re sweet, stereotypical, one-dimensional and predictable. The play is seemingly another retelling of an old story—the independent, masculine, wild-at-heart hero and the prim, repressed, helpless heroine, who hate each other at first, but gradually fall in love.

Then a card table goes flying across the stage. The bantering takes on a startlingly nasty tone. The reason the two are spending their golden years alone begins to become apparent. And you’re forced to take a second glance.

Coburn plays on the audience’s assumptions. The Gin Game is about growing old in a society in which age is not respected and in which the elderly are defined by extremely narrow stereotypes. It’s about friendship, loneliness, regrets, winners, losers and the game that is life.

Sometimes, these messages are delivered with a bit too much evangelical fervor, prompting long, passionate speeches that seem more aimed at gaining converts than at furthering the dramatic action on stage. But most of the time, they creep up on you subtly, spurring nagging questions that won’t go away.

At the state-sponsored home, timid newcomer Fronsia Dorsey escapes the bustle of Visitor’s Day on the back porch, where the “difficult” Weller Martin spends his days playing cards, especially gin rummy. He convinces Fronsia to play and is shocked when she beats him, over and over again.

The game, of course, is a metaphor for the larger games the characters have been playing throughout their lives, and as they play, the ghosts of their pasts are revealed. It’s fascinating to watch as their frustrations, failures and angst-filled regrets are slowly exposed, as the stakes in their burgeoning friendship are gradually raised.

In emotional terms, the work is full of compelling drama. In more prosaic terms, nothing really happens during the play’s three acts besides a few games of gin. Keeping this interesting and engaging is a challenge, and for the most part, the burden falls on the actors.

While they’re no Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, Gothic North veterans Sharon Zenz and Michael Peters do deliver. Their repartee is funny, believable and sometimes chillingly honest. Their physical actions and personal eccentricities are played flawlessly and deliberately.

Sometimes, though, such deliberate mannerisms can be distracting. Both actors are much younger than their characters, and their transformation into tottering seniors involves gray wigs, deliberate creakiness and lots of facial putty, which, at one point in the show I attended, began to melt unnervingly off of Peters’ face.

Sometimes, it seems as if the actors have put so much energy into the illusion of age that they don’t have time to develop their characters beyond the sweet stereotypes.

This problem improves as the play progresses to its thought-provoking end. With a little more facial adhesive and a little less opening night jitters, the performances are sure to become even stronger with time.