D.L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Gin Game is a two-character play set on the porch of a half-dilapidated old-age home, somewhere in deepest Americana. There, an old man named Weller (Peter Haig) spends his afternoons cheating at solitaire and holding his fellow senescents in silent contempt.
His solitude is disturbed one day by the arrival of Fonsia (Barbara Bradshaw), a younger woman (of 71 — Weller is very old) who bursts onto the porch in the middle of a crying jag. On Haig's face — one of the busiest mugs in the business — can be read a well-learned mistrust of intimate engagement with his fellow human beings, one that is at war with the gentility taught to all American boys of his character's generation. Gentility wins out, nudged to victory with the help of its silent partner, loneliness. If Weller can calm this lady down, perhaps he won't have to play solitaire anymore.
He does calm her down. She is new to the nursing home and deeply dissatisfied with it, and she is lonesome too. Weller suggests the pair play a game of gin to pass the time.
The Gin Game, through August 15 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Call 561-514-4042, or click here.
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What transpires on the porch of the old-age home is often surreal, often sad, and occasionally violent. The Gin Game may first appear to be a commentary on two particularly damaged people who just so happen to use gin as an excuse to become friends. But that's not quite right. Gin is a game in which you cannot see your opponent's hand; victory is predicated upon a wild guess at the motives of another. It's a not-bad simulacrum of humanity's more predatory social interactions. In gin, the game, and in The Gin Game, whole lives are enacted in miniature. The belief that the cosmos is fundamentally antagonistic; the certainty that somehow, for some reason, the universe has ordained that victory is impossible (and pathetic, infantile rage at the immutability of this decision) — this is what Weller brings to the game. These are the qualities that have defined his entire life, that have steered him inexorably toward this penniless, friendless, angry twilight on a half-rotted porch, and they will shape the world as he sees it until his dying day. And these are the qualities that prevent him from winning a single hand of gin against Fonsia, no matter how long they play.
Of course, there can be no friendship between Weller and Fonsia. Bradshaw plays Fonsia as cool bordering on bloodless, the set of her jaw and cast of her eyes as tense and precise as a piano wire. Fonsia never had any truck with Weller's defeatist self-mythologizing — most likely, she never had time for it. Her situation has been too desperate for excuses, no matter how ingenious, and a desperate life has taught her the secrets of brutish victory. She will win, and win, and win, and she is helpless to do otherwise — at 71, her knack for self-preservation has been so obsessively honed that it has mutated into an all-consuming will to dominate. She cannot stop it, even as it drives away her friends, her few living family members, her children. Which may be why she sticks around this sad game of gin long after she should walk out on one of Weller's increasingly frightening temper tantrums. She loves winning too much.
But we realize this only later. In Bradshaw's subtlest performance in years, she keeps Fonsia's guilty tears behind a dam of ice. It will not melt, and it barely ever cracks: It takes a brief moment at play's end — when Fonsia, alone on the porch, cries "Oh, no!" and plants her face in her palms — to show us what Fonsia has seen all along. She is no mere victim of manly brutality — certainly not Weller's. Weller and her son and countless others are victims too of Fonsia's sly sabotage.
In The Gin Game, Weller and Fonsia are wrestling with a mistake: They believed too strongly in second and third chances, in their own permanence and infinitude. Now they understand that they were wrong. If they cannot articulate their losses and restage their old battles within these diminished environs in the hopes of reversing their defeats, if only in miniature, then they are doomed to fail — doomed by mortality, time, the impossibility of the infinite. And at least in Dramaworks' deep, dark production, it is impossible not to realize that their loss is our own.