The Gin Game | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Gin Game 

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The Gin Game, Stage Actors Ensemble, at the Performance Loft. A clever cautionary tale about growing old gracelessly, D.L. Coburn's bittersweet 1978 Pulitzer winner depicts two elderly survivors who get a last chance--and blow it. To escape from the living dead who slobber through life in their cheapskate nursing home, demure Fonsia and curmudgeonly Weller engage in a series of card games, inadvertently revealing why their children won't visit them.

Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, the show's original stars on Broadway, gave quicksilver performances on a tour to Chicago, making their characters fairly gentle. In another touring show four years ago, a bullying Charles Durning and fragile Julie Harris exposed, perhaps more than intended, Weller's anger and aggression and Fonsia's vulnerability and timidity. Sometimes less is more: avoiding sentimentality and swagger, Carolyn Bowyer and Kenneth Johnson convey these elders' sheer loneliness, making their decency as palpable as their defects. By casting Johnson, who's African-American, as Weller, director Stephan Turner gives Coburn's creatures an even greater gulf to overcome. But these actors make their characters' lifelong mistakes and flaws surpass all cultural boundaries.

Vindictive in her passive aggression, Bowyer's exasperatingly placid Fonsia plays gin the way she used to play people. Johnson's gravelly voice and stooped gait can't conceal the fact that, even when nothing's at stake, Weller must win. "It's only a game" is no more true here than "it's only a play": neither games nor this work can be dismissed.

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