BWW Reviews: Poignant Palmers Ace The Gin Game
Two lonely people find each other in a nursing home, they hit it off, and a congenial conversation leads to a series of card games. But in that sequestered and artificial world, low stakes become high. When one's life is over, without being over, what else could happen? Both characters are complex, vulnerable, and proud. With each hand, their regrets and hostilities rise to the surface.
This powerful tragicomedy showcases Jo Lynne Palmer (Fonsia Dorsey) and Jim Palmer (Weller Marin)--the Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy of Memphis Theater. Married in real life for forty-plus years, and with a Pulitzer Prize winning script in hand, these local legends made magic. Opening night was delayed by a week because Jim Palmer took a bad fall during dress rehearsal. The accident left him in a wheelchair while his leg is on the mend. Master of his craft, he made that limitation work to his advantage. Weller Marin's limited mobility in the chair became a metaphor for his confined life, and an additional cause for his undercurrent of frustration. The other metaphor in this play, is of course, the hands of cards, which layer by layer reveal the characters' hearts. Though the dialogue is pointed, the writing is a bit predictable in that Fonsia wins all the hands but one. But then the cards are a mere device allowing the plot to thicken.
Playful at first, it seems Fonsia and Weller might strike up a winter romance. All the more convincing since glimmers of the Palmers' affection and youthful spirit sparkle through their banter. But the story soon grows dark. First the masks slip . . . and by and by the gloves come off. Fonsia's triumph with each small win goes from innocent to sadistic. As she delights in beating Weller, his agitation crescendos since each loss reminds him that like the game, his life is ending in defeat. Could Fonsia be a card shark passing herself off as a lucky beginner?
Though written by Donald L. Coburn in 1978, THE GIN GAME carries a relevant message about aging in American society. I happened to see the show with a friend in her eighties who had spent ten years volunteering in a senior center. "How true," she said after the show. "Old people get very emotional over those card games and they make each other cry all the time."
Like many people, Fonsia and Weller need each other, yet they have trouble getting along.
In addition to the Palmers performances and the expert direction of Marler Stone, the production value of the show is superb. Award winning Designer Jack Yates created a beautiful set that conveys a paradox of comfort and deferred maintenance. Those sets were graced by Mandy Heath's nuanced lighting design and brought to life with the help of Matthew Stone's sound design.
Driving only a few minutes to see a play that could hold up anywhere in the world, and knowing the people who made it happen live nearby is the essence of a vibrant arts community. Though I have no doubt the Palmers could have made it in New York, Hollywood, or anywhere they chose to hang their hats, Memphis is honored to claim them!
The Gin Game runs through October 4th.
Don't forget, Wednesday is "Theatre Folk" night for The Gin Game at Theatre Memphis. All tickets only $15 Curtain at 7:30pm.
For more information, visit www.theatrememphis.org.