House of cards

The Gin Game

Rated 4.0

My parents have had a long, happy marriage. Their secret? A long time ago, they realized they should never, ever play cards together. My competitive dad still plays bridge three times a week. My play-for-fun mom stays far away. It works.

The contrast in playing styles between the serious competitor and the social player is what brings humor to D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Gin Game. Ill health, money woes and old age are what bring the pathos and tragedy to this two-character play, set in a dilapidated senior citizen’s home.

A card game is a perfect dramatic device. Two people can communicate through their playing styles and in the chitchat that happens between hands. There would be more talk during the game, but Weller Martin (Ed Claudio) is the focused perfectionist who takes his gin game too seriously for that. His new playing partner, Fonsia Dorsey (Hazel Johnson), just wants to have fun.

The two meet when Fonsia finds crusty curmudgeon Weller playing solitaire on the porch of their dreary nursing home. Before long, Weller talks Fonsia into a game of gin, and much to the audience’s delight, this card neophyte beats him every time. At first, his incredulous shock is humorous, but Weller’s increasing nastiness and anger during a continuous losing streak become quite unsettling.

The Gin Game is a slice of senior life, but don’t confuse it with a warm, go-gently-into-the-good-night look at the aging process. These two are a prickly pair, and before long, it’s clear there’s steel beneath Fonsia’s warm exterior that makes her a perfect match for the irascible wrath of Weller. And it also becomes clear, through short bits of dialogue during games, that bad luck and bad life choices contributed to the sad lot of both seniors.

The two remarkable stars of The Gin Game are perfectly matched. Director Claudio doubles as the crusty Weller, giving a tour-de-force performance. Johnson is his equal in her delicate performance as the quiet, tough-as-nails Fonsia. When they try to waltz, dragging all their hurts and baggage with them, it’s enough to break your heart.