Playing the Hand You've Been Dealt in The Gin Game

Writing theater reviews isn't all free tickets and fun times. Sometimes you have to really work for it. The Gin Game is a case in point. Although the play won a Pulitzer Prize for its author D. L. Coburn it is by no means universally loved. It took me some research and reflection to figure out why.

From reviews I've read on the Internet I can see a pattern emerge. It seems that younger audiences tend to see it somewhat unfavorably while older ones tend to like it. But the reason the opinions divide along generational lines may surprise you.

First, a little about the story. It takes place on a seldom-used sun porch at the Bentley, a rather seedy and rundown old folks home. The lone set is well-designed and beautifully lit by Jessica Kaplan and Peter Leonard respectively. Some creative sound engineering by T. J. Kross populates the home with residents we never see. Weller Martin (Hal Blankenship) has been living there for a couple of months, keeping to himself, cheating at solitaire and apparently ruminating on life in general and his life in particular. Into his little domain comes Fonsia Dorsey (Carol Lambert), a new arrival whom he quickly persuades to play gin rummy with him.

That back porch is now their whole world and these two characters are the entire cast. And the gin games they play are metaphors for their lives. I'm a number of decades younger than Fonsia and Weller but I'm no kid. Perhaps that's why my feelings about the play seem to run between the youngsters and the oldsters.

The play, like most people's lives, is a comedy-drama. The comedy is light-hearted and simple and the drama is dark, and some might say, sad. These are two people whose lives haven't worked out as well as they had hoped and they're both defensive and deceitful as to where the blame for their failures lies.

If I could use only one word to describe The Gin Game it would have to be poignant. I did identify with these two lost souls and I cared about what they did and said. If they have failed, they haven't failed more than most of us do.

So why the generational rift? I believe it's not because younger audiences just can't identify with older characters. My impression is that younger people see the play as too pessimistic and dark. Weller dismisses the residents who stay inside watching TV and listening to visiting choirs as "vegetables" but the alternative is to sit on the porch playing increasingly frustrating games of gin with Fonsia in which the two slowly strip away the flesh covering their raw nerves.

The older people in the audience last night clearly enjoyed the play. Young people fear old age; older people compare it to the alternative. Even with the inevitable infirmities, indignities and disappointments we encounter in life, most of us prefer to fight and live rather than surrender and die. Or play our hands out rather than fold. As Weller and Fonsia, Hal Blankenship and Carol Lambert show us the fight can be engaging, enlightening and entertaining. If you like your comedy leavened with pathos you'll surely enjoy The Gin Game.

Evening performances run through October 13, 2002 at 8:00 p.m.