It is worth heading to the Drury Lane Theatre production of D.L. Coburn’s two-character play “The Gin Game” simply to watch the countless variations actor John Reeger can bring to the act of dealing cards, and to listen as Paula Scrofano absentmindedly begins to sing a tune that sets his nerves on edge.
Playing Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey — recently arrived residents at a home for the aged — the two actors are (like Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, the fabled couple who co-starred in the play’s 1971 Broadway premiere) a long-married pair in real life. Reeger and Scrofano met and married at Northwestern University, and then proceeded to raise a family while practicing their craft primarily on Chicago stages. Along the way they accumulated resumes that include work (individually and together) in more than 150 shows. This production, directed with a fine ear for the tragicomic by Ross Lehman, is a celebration of their talent and devotion, and of their unique ability to communicate with each other and their audience. Think of it not as Acting 101, but rather as an advanced graduate seminar in scene study.
Although Coburn’s play received the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it is more of a finely observed vehicle for bravura actors than a masterpiece of dramatic art. But as someone who has watched her own 93-year-old mother — a woman with an unassailably independent spirit — deal with life in senior housing, I can attest to the truth of much that unfolds in the play, and to the comedy, pathos, frustration, anger and loneliness of it all.
Weller, a once successful businessman who lost most of his money, is a long divorced man with three grown children with whom he has no contact. Volatile and desperately assertive, with a knee problem that requires the use of a cane, he is acutely aware of what the future holds.
Fonsia is a still active woman of 71 who was divorced when her son was very young, and worked for years while raising him as a single mother. Now estranged from him, as well as from her sister, she, too, has money problems, but keeps them hidden.
The two first meet on the rather shabby patio of the nursing home. (The terrific photorealist set is the work of designer Katherine Ross, enhanced by Mike Tutaj’s documentary-style projections of the dining room, wheelchairs and all the rest.) And Weller quite quickly sits Fonsia down to a game of gin rummy. She downplays her knowledge of cards, but once they begin to play her successive wins suggest she is either exceptionally lucky or a hidden master of the game. And as the winning streak continues for many days, Weller grows increasingly unnerved. Her success clearly upends his last vestige of manhood.
Yet by the time this happens, these otherwise isolated souls — who revel in the fact that they are somehow superior to the other residents who spend their days watching TV, or engaging in the home’s carefully planned activities and entertainments they view as something of a late-life kindergarten — also have come to depend on each other for company. And they trade complaints about the food, the staff and things that go missing. (Although this is never mentioned, Fonsia is ahead of the game in terms of finding a male companion, for women tend to greatly outnumber men in senior facilities.)
As Fonsia’s enduring winning streak continues, Weller’s bursts of anger grow more and more intense. She pulls away, and then returns, and at one point tells him he needs psychiatric help. Aspects of their personal lives that have gradually been revealed are turned into weapons as they use this information to wound each other in a relationship whose endgame is, in fact, the blunt fact of mortality.
Tall, lean and almost palpably brittle, Reeger masterfully captures the sense of loss that comes with old age as he clings to the few things that sustain his worth and identity. Listen to the vocal modulations and variations of rhythm he uses as he deals cards, and delight in the brilliance of his technique. At the same time, watch as Scrofano suggests Fonsia’s growing confidence, and how, at one point, she arrives dressed in pink, with her hair neatly coiffed — still interested in attracting the male gaze.
How does it all end? That will not be revealed here, although Coburn might have opted for a bit less melodrama. Yet clearly, the outcome is all in the cards from the start.