Ever since its New York opening in 1977, D.L. Colburn's "The Gin Game" has attracted extraordinary actors. First, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy made the play their own. In the 1990s, Charles Durning and Julie Harris picked up the deck. And just last year, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson shouted at their gin, and each other, on Broadway.
This tells you a lot about how few attractive, neo-stereotypical leading roles exist for senior actors, even though senior actors are often the best actors, given how craft accumulates and understandings generally deepen.
Here in Chicago, the closest thing we have to that justly beloved kind of theatrical royalty is John Reeger and Paula Scrofano, two multidecade stars of the Midwestern musical theater. One or the other (occasionally, both) have artfully held down productions at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, the Marriott Lincolnshire and the Drury Lane Theatre almost more times than those theaters have served their loyal patrons steak dinners. Scrofano has, from time to time, muttered something about retiring but I've never believed her, although she has become harder to find on a Chicago stage. Thankfully, here she is again, working with her husband, under the direction of their fellow actor, Ross Lehman, a director who demonstrably understands them.
Reviewing the work of the one fine actor apart from the other is not only difficult, especially in a two-hander like "The Gin Game," but almost feels like an unethical act that might cause upset over cornflakes. But I think it's fair to say that, if you take the long view, Scrofano has usually been seen as the bigger star. Rightly so.
But Reeger's work in his senior years has been simply extraordinary. You may recall him in Robert Falls' stunning production of "The Iceman Cometh." And when I say that his work in "The Gin Game" puts me in mind of that performance, I mean that as a high compliment, for D.L. Coburn, with all due respect, is no Eugene O'Neill.
"The Gin Game" does not need much summation: therein, two residents of a down-at-heel retirement community, both highly intelligent, feisty and witty people, discover each other on the terrace, where they seem mostly to have been ignored. You never see a staffer, although both Fonsia and Weller are heard calling for a nurse. So left to their own devices, the couple play gin rummy throughout the show, revealing character details along the way, challenging each other for dominance, and trying to navigate the boundaries of their new, late-in-life relationship.
Lehman's "Gin Game" laudably ranges a little darker than most productions I've seen of a script that, in Act 2, does not fully deliver all that you come to want (you never really feel like you know how the couple ended up in this place). Although Katherine Ross' set doesn't step too far away from the usual, the gifted videographer Mike Tutaj has added footage of retirement homes that lends the piece an atypically intense poignancy. Throughout the show, I had the sense that everyone involved here was carefully navigating the line between not upsetting the target audience of the play, and saying something well worth saying about how American society treats its vital seniors. Certainly, Reeger is on board with of all that.
"The Gin Game" generally has been seen as a effective and entertaining vehicle for superior senior actors; that is what you will be seeing here. But if you watch closely, and keep focused on what these performers are quietly revealing, you leave with the sense that none of this is really a game.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
REVIEW: 'The Gin Game' (3 stars)
When: Through Aug. 13
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $42-$57 at 630-530-0111 or www.drurylanetheatre.com