BWW review: Sierra Madre Playhouse Offers Brilliant Production of THE GIN GAME
The Gin Game/by D. L. Coburn/directed by Christian Lebano/Sierra Madre Playhouse/through October 6
D.L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize winning The Gin Game with its focus on two elderly people in a run down nursing facility circa 1977 is rarely if ever revived in Los Angeles. Why? I'm not sure. It requires great actors, but LA does have them. Maybe it's the theme. Too depressing? No excuse! The play is a brilliant, thought-provoking work of art. On the surface it's exceedingly funny but underneath, a seriously disquieting potboiler for seniors. Loneliness and insufficient finances for decent old age care create a bleak outlook. Currently onstage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse through October 6, real life husband and wife Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James beautifully play Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey under the meticulous direction of Christian Lebano.
Playwrigtht Coburn's brilliance is extraordinary in its unpredictability. At the top, when they first meet, Fonsia and Weller are problematic and lonely, and at the end nothing has changed for the better; it goes from bad to worse. Usually, there are full circle character transformations by play's end, but The Gin Game is hardly your regular two character play. The gin game itself is, like passing time, a symbol of living. It's Weller's way of attempting to befriend Fonsia, bringing her into his daily life. His wife and children do not visit him. Neither does Fonsia's family. The two desperate souls find relaxation in playing cards, at first. Then, with Weller's intensely negative reactions toward losing and Fonsia's overbearing delight, as a beginner, in winning every single game, their relationship turns increasingly sour. The two gin partners argue, rattling each other's nerves, not over a silly game, but more urgently over the problems of life that spill from it. Stubborn and proud, Fonsia had lied about having money. She is on welfare. Weller, in fact, lost his business, and he too is a welfare recipient. Coburn wisely saves these big confessions until very late in the second act, allowing the tug of war to get fiercely intense. Although there are scattered moments of tranquility and endearment, the relationship, as in a bad marriage, becomes all out violent...total war, with little or no hope for peace.
Director Lebano presents a very point blank perspective of what is happening, relying less on theatricality and more on kitchen sink reality. Blumenfeld and James are superb, playing off each other with gusto. There's never a dull moment as audience are riveted from start to finish. James relishes playing the game and hums to herself loudly, giving off an attitude that she has nothing to worry about. She will beat him. Blumenfeld is delightful in his anal retentive shuffling of the cards. Weller is a barrel of contradictions, though, and Blumenfeld is especially wonderful in his seemingly genuine apology scenes in the garden with Fonsia. Assistant stage manager Matthew Raymond changes props and set pieces between scenes and his time onstage, grimacing at an overturned table and all the work that besets him, or munching at intermisssion as he watches the audience return to their seats, is almost a show in itself.
Tesshi Nakagawa's scenic design with all the clutter and leaky ceiling is spot.on. Elizabeth Nankins costumes are nicely designed, particularly the colorful outfits for Fonsia, who changes clothes every scene. Barry Schwam is terrific with sound. Cate Caplin choreographs lovingly the dance that Weller and Fonsia perform in act two. Diane Siegel, lobby curator, works wonders with her marvelously informative additions to the walls. Of particular interest is 1977 versus 2018: how elderly care has changed drastically for the better from then to now.
Don't miss The Gin Game! You will love Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld as Fonsia and Weller. As I left the theater, I overheard someone say they hope younger audiences will attend the play. Even though it's about their grandparents, there is much to learn as they too may face similar problems some day. The play may help them to better prepare for the future.
(photo credit: Gina Long)