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Long-married Drury Lane 'Gin Game' stars share success on and off stage

June 19, 2017 at 11:32 AM

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From that day six years ago when he asked Paula Scrofano and John Reeger to star in Drury Lane Theatre's revival of "The Gin Game," artistic director William Osetek has been on pins and needles. He was afraid some other artistic director would realize what a great idea that was and beat Drury Lane to the punch.

"Given how extraordinary they are when they work together," said Osetek, "I'm surprised nobody beat us to it."


His challenge was convincing the award-winning couple to come out of semiretirement to do the show, which starts previews this week at the Oakbrook Terrace theater.

"Paula was pretending to be in denial," Osetek joked, referencing Scrofano's concern over her ability to memorize the dialogue. "But I knew we were golden when she made the mistake of saying to me that her mother said she would stay alive to see it."

D.L. Coburn's two-hander debuted on Broadway in 1977 with real-life married couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starring as nursing home residents who become not-quite-friends over a series of gin rummy games. Since then, Osetek said, Coburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy has became a favorite vehicle for married acting couples of a certain age.

Osetek originally planned to direct. When those plans changed, he asked Scrofano and Reeger who they'd like to helm the show. They suggested longtime friend, actor/director Ross Lehman.

"I assumed it would be perfect and now I know," said Osetek, who can't pass the room where the trio are rehearsing without stopping to observe the masters at work.

"Where Chicago is concerned ... they are as good as anybody I know," he said.

So good in fact, that Osetek never considered casting anyone else. If the couple had declined, he would have scuttled the production.

"When Bill said 'I want to direct you in "The Gin Game"' we both laughed," said Scrofano, chuckling. "We didn't realize how old we were getting."

The couple, who have dozens upon dozens of productions to their credit, began working on it last October over their kitchen table. By February, they had committed the lines to memory, says Scrofano, who shared with her husband the 2015 Joseph Jefferson Award for lifetime achievement.

"What makes this tricky, is you're playing 14 hands of gin. Every hand has its own results and score," said Reeger.

"The Gin Game" marks the 12th time Scrofano and Reeger have worked together at Drury Lane. All together, they have co-starred in 48 Chicago-area equity productions.

They met as freshman theater students at Northwestern University. On June 18, they celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary.

"I knew within two weeks of our first date that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him," said Scrofano, 66.

"I'm not sure how we were so smart, so young," added Reeger, 67. "By junior year we were married."

They spent part of their 20s touring with a folk ensemble before settling down in the suburbs -- first Berwyn and later Riverside -- where they raised their son and daughter.

"We grew up together. We became each other's best friend early on and it stayed that way," said Scrofano.

"We've grown accustomed to each other's face," said Reeger, adding that with the rare exception they've spent 24/7 together.

"I get tired of other people," he said. "I never seem to get tired of Paula."

For decades, they have been two of Chicago's busiest, best-loved actors performing at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and Chicago's Court and Chicago Shakespeare theaters, among others. Their talent kept them employed. Their priorities kept their marriage and their family intact.

They weighed out-of-town acting offers carefully, Scrofano said. If a job placed a burden on one of them or on the family, the decision to turn it down was easy.

Reeger -- who also co-wrote the musicals "The Christmas Schooner" with Julie Shannon and "The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes" with Shannon and Michael Mahler -- describes himself and Scrofano as "incredibly lucky and blessed."

"Because Chicago is such a great theater town, we kept working," he said.

While other theater artists fulfilled their dreams on Broadway or in Hollywood, Scrofano and Reeger fulfilled theirs here at home. As Scrofano remarked when the couple accepted their lifetime achievement award: Their dream was to be working actors, have a home, raise their kids and do the best possible work. And that's exactly what they've done.

"We look back and wouldn't change a thing," she said. "We wouldn't trade it with anyone."