Although the play's been around over thirty years, I'd never seen D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game, and at the beginning, I expected it to be a heartwarmer. Two old people connect on the seldom-used porch of their retirement home, a dusty, cluttered place of battered chairs and cast-off household objects. Both are attempting to escape their fellow residents and the mirthless games and events the staff is constantly arranging to keep everyone occupied. Weller, a manipulator who fiddles with cards, begins teaching Fonsia to play gin, and it turns out she has an uncanny knack for the game — or perhaps she's an expert playing him for a sucker. The more wins Fonsia piles up, the angrier and more unreasonable Weller becomes. As they play, the script touches on loneliness, family members who never visit, the way a lifetime looks to someone approaching the end of it, the bitter fact that in this country, old people often have to spend everything they have, even selling their houses, in order to pay for the care they need — care that's deeply resented, even when indispensable. Watching the early scenes, I was pretty sure what was going to happen: Weller and Fonsia would find comfort in each other's company, and perhaps a late-in-life romance. But this play has many surprises.
I don't know why The Gin Game won so many awards when it first came out, including the Pulitzer; it's a good play, and one that stimulates thought, but it isn't exactly inspired or revelatory. Still, those surprises, the way the script confounds stereotype, give it power: Partway through, you realize you're in for something sadder, badder and more human than you'd thought. The Gin Game tells us that old people aren't necessarily sweet old dears, that they carry their flaws and weaknesses with them into the end game; that the disappointments of a lifetime don't dissipate, but can wither and harden a person's soul; that wisdom, humility and empathy don't necessarily come with the imminence of death. There's a reason these two people are alone on their porch, and it isn't — as Weller would like to believe — their intellect, liveliness and proud singularity. He is plagued by demons of rage, failure and loss; her pinch-mouthed judgmentalism reveals itself slowly.
In the hands of Paragon Theatre's Warren Sherrill, their game provides a scintillating evening of theater as the couple battles over the card table — Weller, grim-faced, counting out each hand, insisting that they continue playing as he endures loss after loss, Fonsia coyly shielding her cards. His rages are gargantuan, but beneath her mild exterior, this woman's unyielding, and she more than holds her own. As Weller, Jim Hunt offers the best performance I've ever seen from him, deep and committed, with every thought and emotion given its due. It's fascinating just watching the conflicting feelings traveling across his face, heartrending to see this bluff, hale man fighting the increasing decrepitude of his own body with profoundly ill grace. Patty Mintz Figel matches him as Fonsia, slim and agile as a matador faced with a rampaging bull, almost always sweet-voiced and reasonable, but every now and then revealing a glint of steel.
Leaving the theater, I couldn't help thinking about a British sitcom that covers some of the same territory as The Gin Game, but in a completely different spirit. Waiting for God is set in a retirement home and concerns the ongoing relationship between Diana Trent, who was once a famed war photographer, and her neighbor, the amiable duffer Tom Ballard, a man who loves to ramble and fantasize — whether because his mind is going or because he enjoys driving Diana crazy is never made clear. Their home is just as infantilizing as the one depicted in this play, but the residents respond very differently. They mutiny against the staff. One of them, a bouncing octogenarian called Basil, racks up sexual conquests among his equally elderly peers. Tom and Diana amuse themselves by making life hell for Harvey Baines, the corporate stooge who runs the place. In quieter moments, they face the same fears as the protagonists of The Gin Game: illness, separation, the apparent meaninglessness of a life cut off from the mainstream. Like Weller and Fonsia, Tom and Diana will not go gentle into that good night. Unlike the card players, they'll almost certainly go out laughing.