BWW Reviews: Emotions Run High in Anacostia Playhouse's Production of THE GIN GAME
The Anacostia Playhouse may one of the newest buildings to see live theatre in the region, but there's no shortage of ambition to make a mark. Presenting D.L. Coburn's 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning two-character drama, The Gin Game - a show that's seen two Broadway productions and is largely associated with its original cast of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn - is certainly no easy task. Sure, it only involves two actors, does not require major costume changes, sets, or elaborate sound and lighting, but the success of any production of this play is completely dependent on how well the two actors (and the director) can make the audience care about two older people in a nursing home that bond over gin.
The story is a simple one, yet provides insight on human relationships, self-perceptions, and much more. When insecure Fonsia meets Weller, she's a newcomer to the run-down nursing home and feeling a bit lost. An invitation to play gin with the persnickety Weller serves as a nice diversion. What starts out as a friendly competition (which Fonsia more than often wins) becomes much more as the two opposites reveal painful details of their lives as they play the card game, and open up about their current and past struggles - whether willingly or not. Bonds are formed and then tested over a period of time. Emotional explosions are the norm rather than the exception.
Featuring Dane Galloway as Weller Martin and Anacostia Playhouse owner Adele Robey as Fonsia Dorsey, the self-produced production is somewhat successful in bringing the audience in emotionally to the duo's ever narrowing world in the home. There are some believability issues - they look rather young for the roles and aren't necessarily able to help the audience forget that. The acting never rises to a level of awe-inspiring and does not result in a 'can't keep your eyes off of them' type of situation that this kind of play really needs. Added to this, the jokes don't always land. Yet, one has to give them credit for taking on the enormous acting challenge and making the most of it.
As the play largely centers on the relationship Fonsia and Weller form with one another at the gin table, the actors must attain a certain level of believability that the pair has a love-hate kind of relationship. Galloway and Robey thankfully have a solid chemistry with one another and have a bit of a penchant for digging deep into their characters that allows them to delineate to the audience why the relationship they have with one another is such a difficult one.
They also clearly understand the play is as much of a character study as it is anything else. The duo is nothing if not consistent and well-matched in this regard. Yet, I did wonder from some of the meticulous acting choices, particulalry at the emotional breaking points, were well-grounded in the script's intent. For example, we never really completely understand, from Galloway's portrayal, why Weller is always going ballistic and why Fonsia responds the way she does to his provocations.
Unfortunately, though Coburn's script is well-written and very human, Galloway and Robey are not necessarily able to overcome the fact that the scenarios that are presented in the play are largely repetitive. True, this is to be expected (and even appropriate) in such a routine-base environment as a nursing home, but without 'star-level' and intoxicating acting, it's quite possible for the mind to wander as we witness their games and arguments.
Director Robert Lufty tries to make the play as interesting as possible with his varied rather than completely static staging. Patrick Calhoun's sound design and compositions, and Erin Cumbo's tattered set also prove aurally or visually interesting. Yet, in this case, the myriad of theatrical production elements didn't always work for me in the way they may have been intended.
For example, a decision to stage the show in the round means that for a good portion of the show one or more section of the audience is looking at one character's back. This is a particularly unfortunate situation because there are long periods of time that the actors do not move from their game table. So, rather than making the environment more intimate and easier to be drawn into, the compromised sightlines make it easier for some audience members (including myself, admittedly) to lose focus. Staring at someone's back can get slightly old - particularly if the dialogue gets repetitive. The movement of the actors away from the gin table - sometimes moving the table to a new position - remedies this sightline situation somewhat during the course of the play, It did leave me wondering whether it served any other deeper artistic purpose other than changing up the view and showing the passage of time.
Likewise, Calhoun's sound design and compositions - featuring ambient sounds from the outside, noise from other rooms in the nursing home, and a buzzing noise highlighting the chaos in Weller's head at the emotional climaxes - are interesting to listen to, but are sometimes overwhelming. As Fonsia and Weller go at one another, the buzzing can be particularly distracting and pulls focus. Sometimes making the sound elements too complicated may not be the best way to go, particularly with a story as focused as this one.
All in all, this play is not a must-see and may not be worth a special trek to Anacostia if one lives some distance away. Quibbles aside though, I appreciate the effort of all involved.
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.
The Gin Game plays at the Anacostia Playhouse - 2020 Shannon Place, SE in Washington, DC - through February 2, 2014. For tickets and additional information, visit the playhouse's website.
Photo: C. Stanley Photography (Galloway and Robey pictured)