THERE are some things that happen so routinely that they simply are expected––rising prices, rush-hour traffic jams, TV reality shows, and Jeff Award-winners Paula Scrofano and John Reeger sharing the same theater stage.
Along the way to becoming known as “the first couple of Chicago theater,” the husband-and-wife team has acted together in more than 48 Equity productions––including Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Jesus Christ Superstar, Meet Me in St Louis, Sound of Music, Hello Dolly, Annie, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof and Mame. Now they have added one more play to their distinguished list. This time it’s The Gin Game, running through August 13 at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.
The two-act, two-character play––awarded the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and nominated for four Tony Awards––is beautifully acted by the couple who bring a level of reality to a show that symbolizes life in the form of a card game. In The Gin Game, Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, two lonely souls who seem too young––mentally and physically––to be stuck in a senior citizens’ facility, come together and eventually Martin, a cranky, sarcastic and grumpy man introduces her to the game. What begins as a friendly contest quickly becomes much more than a way to pass the time. With each game, Martin becomes more frustrated and unnerved, revealing a side of himself that his new, confident acquaintance won’t tolerate. But for the most part, Fonsia, a former apartment manager, and Martin, at one time a successful owner of a marketing and research firm, pour their hearts into the games and all the while share significant parts of their lives with each other, including conversations about children, divorce, the agony of parting with personal belongings, and even facing the reality of their own mortality.
In the midst of the frequent, sometimes unruly games, the twosome become aware that they have much more in common than they thought and actually need each other more than they realize. When it comes down to it, they are just trying to deal with the indignities of their everyday lives, hoping to maintain a piece of who they were before the reality of aging brought about a major, life-altering change. “We have wanted to produce The Gin Game for years, specifically with Paula Scrofano and John Reeger in the roles of Fonsia and Weller,” says Kyle DeSantis, president of Drury Lane Productions. “This marks Drury Lane’s 12th collaboration with this legendary pair of Chicago actors, and we’re so excited to welcome them back to our stage.”
Already considered royalty in Chicago theater, by signing on to this production, Reeger and Scrofano add their names to the exceptional list of famous duos who have shuffled the cards in The Gin Game, beginning with original stars Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn (the 1977 Broadway production and 1981 TV movie), Julie Harris and Charles Durning (in the 1997 Broadway revival), Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke (in the 2003 PBS television special), and Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones (marking the play’s second Broadway revival, which in 2015 also was the first major production with and all-black cast).
On stage––in this play that’s written by D.L. Coburn and directed by Ross Lehman––the chemistry and comic timing are evident between this pair of actors, not only because they have done this so many times together, but because more than 40 years of marriage has its beneficial effects from one production to another. There’s familiarity. There’s trust. There’s contentment. There’s a sense of security and reassurance between them that’s transferred seamlessly from real life and clearly reflected in the theater.
Thanks to all of that and more, Reeger and Scrofano have skillfully put their own mark on an award-winning play that’s been done by some of the biggest stars in the acting world. In the end, it’s their “brilliance of portrayal” that critics and theatergoers alike point to in describing their enduring appeal. It’s that quality that allows the recipients of the 2015 Equity Special Award for Career Achievement to show that a simple card game can be so illuminating––not only exposing one’s competitive nature but effectively revealing a player’s character and the deepest part of his/her soul.