BWW Review: Gin and Toxic Masculinity with Village Theatre's Brutal THE GIN GAME

BWW Review: Gin and Toxic Masculinity with Village Theatre's Brutal THE GIN GAME
Marianne Owen and Kurt Beattie in
The Gin Game
Photo credit: Tracy Martin

"The Gin Game" is a two-act, two person play about two septuagenarians playing cards together, bored in their retirement home. Neither Weller Martin nor Fonsia Dorsey have visitors on Visitor's Day, so they find themselves outside together, and kill time by playing gin rummy. They make polite conversation about their families-both divorcees without family nearby-and bond over mutual complaints about the retirement home's food. But round after round of gin, Fonsia, a gin rummy novice, beats Weller, and Weller gets increasingly frustrated with Fonsia's improbable winning streak. How could Fonsia keep beating him when he was the one who taught her how to play?

Weller cannot let it go, and insists that the two keep playing well beyond when Fonsia wanted to call it an evening. Weller needs to beat Fonsia, and her steadily-climbing confidence enrages him more. He's very transparent about his intentions, telling her he wants to play just so that he can beat her. And even when he does win a round (this happens pretty early, so it's not a spoiler), it's not enough, because by that point he's convinced that Fonsia threw the game to appease him.

This is not a feel-good production by any means. But it's also not formulaic, which is the most interesting element to "The Gin Game". Given that the only two characters are straight, divorced, and elderly: romance and/or death should be inevitable plot points, right? Not so! It's refreshing to see a production defy narrative expectations. As for plot, there isn't much of one: it's a voyeuristic peek into the lives of two lonely older folks that's brutally honest and sad.

Weller is unquestionably meaner to Fonsia than she is to him. Poor Fonsia has to apologize for winning because Weller makes her feel so unsafe and bad. One may expect Weller and Fonsia to be equally redemptive and despicable in their own ways, but they're not. And it may have had something to do with Kurt Beattie's portrayal of Weller being so immediately cruel. There isn't time for us to see a softer side to Weller, as Beattie takes Weller's character from charmingly cantankerous to just plain brutal after the first card game. Marianne Owen takes more of a "slow burn" approach to expressing Fonsia's irritation, tangibly suppressing it until she blows up at Weller in the second act. And when she does, it's incredibly gratifying. There's a clear favorite: Weller is Goliath, and Fonsia is David. And that feels uncomfortable, as an audience member, when David did not want to fight Goliath the first place, and Goliath won't leave David alone.

So what's the point? That women are demure and men are competitive maniacs? That when we get closer to death, we lower our standards for company? Maybe this Pulitzer Prize-winning production paved the way for conversation about gender roles when it was first performed in 1976, but that examination feels reductive and outdated in 2018.

This show has a lot of impressive and enjoyable qualities: Bill Forrester's set design is gorgeous, creating a hyper-realistic world that feels just the right amount of decrepit without rubbing it in your face. Rick Paulsen's lighting design is so well done that you can tell what time of day it is: just the right amount of softness and intentional shadow placement that screams "3PM". And despite the toxic nature of their relationship, Owen and Beattie manage to create chemistry between Fonsia and Weller (the two actors being married in real life may have helped). There are even some surprisingly funny moments that help break the tension.

It would help going into it thinking that it's a conceptual play that's maybe meant to comment on toxic masculinity. If you don't, then it's just two hours of an elderly man being cruel to an elderly woman. I give this well-executed but uncomfortable play a B-. Plainly, "The Gin Game" is not for everyone.

"The Gin Game" performs at The Village Theatre in Issaquah through February 25, 2018. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.villagetheatre.org.

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