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Close to the Vest
By Kathy Ceceri

The Gin Game
By D.L. Coburn, directed by Steve Fletcher
Curtain Call Theatre, through Nov. 20

Probably in deference to its audience, Curtain Call tends to sprinkle its season of regional premieres and occasionally challenging works with a healthy dose of plays about older people. On the one hand, that gives the company a chance to keep a solid actor like John Noble, who last year appeared in Taking Leave, Loot, and A Bench in the Sun, gainfully employed. On the other hand, it creates a sense of déjà vu that works against the individuality of the plays in question. When The Gin Game opened with the two protagonists, Weller Martin (Noble) and Fonsia Dorsey (Rie Lee) complaining about the quality of their retirement home, I thought it was going to be a grubbier version of the lighthearted Bench all over again. But The Gin Game is a different kind of play altogether.

As Malachi Martin’s set design makes clear, the residents of the Bentley aren’t just being picky when it comes to their new digs: What looks to be the back porch of an old, decrepit wooden structure leads to a “garden” strewn with broken chairs, old tires, and scraps of lumber. When Fonsia, looking unkempt in robe and slippers, steps outside, she’s weeping. A new arrival, she’s having trouble adjusting to the thought of having all her worldly possessions reduced to what she could fit into a small box in her room. Weller, who’s been there a couple of months, is hiding out from the “warehouse for the emotionally and intellectually dead” by sitting at a small makeshift table playing cards. He offers to teach Fonsia how to play gin, and as they go through hand after hand they learn more about each other, and themselves. And we find out why these two apparently capable, intelligent people find themselves in such sad circumstances in their final years. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play sets our expectations on end, becoming less and less sentimental as it wears on. By the end, we see these seemingly likable characters in a completely different light.

Noble and Lee worked well together, their initial mutual attraction slowly turning into an animosity that makes the air crackle with tension. Lee in particular makes an amazing transition from the one-dimensional “little old lady” she appears to be at first. Director Steve Fletcher lets the mood build so subtly that we don’t see the shift from comradeship to competition until it’s too late. Along with Martin’s effective set, the incidental music, from “Happy Days Are Here Again” to “Is That All There Is?” both reflects the era in which the residents of the Bentley grew up and makes an ironic comment on the action. For the characters in The Gin Game, the greatest tragedy may be that for these two old people, their new self-awareness may have been just too little, too late.

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