By Fran Syverson
Call Bentley Home for the Aged by any other name, at bottom line it’s still an “old folks’ home.” A place where people go—or are thrust into—for the last chapter of of their lives. A place, finally, to die.
And that is where we find Weller Martin. He’s sitting by a card table, alone, bored, and disgruntled with life in general and with his life in particular. Along comes a sobbing Fonsia Dorsey who seems, at the moment, even more sad and desolate than Weller. Annoyed at first, he soon coaxes her into a game of gin rummy to get her mind off her troubles. She’s never played gin, so he offers to teach her. Moreover, it gives Weller a distraction from his own morose boredom.
Let the game begin! Fonsia wins! “Beginner’s luck,” Weller says. But she wins again and again. And again. It is hilarious good fun to watch Weller’s frustration as he loses repeatedly. Weller gets increasingly irate and ill-tempered. He becomes almost apoplectic, and his profanities are increasingly bombastic. Fonsia covers her ears, appalled with his cursing, having been raised in a strict Methodist family.
Thus “The Gin Game” becomes a battleground of insults and name-calling. Yet between hands of gin, slowly their own old-age anxieties and fears are revealed. They mourn the things they can no longer do that they once were good at, like dancing. They are sad, achy, old folks who have lost much of the control over their lives. But little by little, they lay bare the secrets of their pasts which they’ve been trying to deny. Fonsia and Weller talk about their families—a business failure, divorces, the children who no longer come to see them.
In this comedy/drama, who better to play Fonsia and Weller than a true-life married couple of 40 years, Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James? They love acting together, and are delighted to be bringing to the stage a genre of storytelling that, says Alan, is too often neglected nowadays. After all, we will spend one-third of our years in old age if we live long enough, he reminds us!
Katherine may be remembered for her role at SMP as Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie,” while Alan is making his debut here. Both are active in theaters throughout the Southland.
Be forewarned: there is more than a sprinkling of cussing. But the story demands it—it could not be told with only a few ‘hecks’ and ‘darns.’ And, after all, this is an adult drama, one dealing with facing up to the bittersweet facts of living for a long time. And also of having your amateur opponent call out “Gin!” every single hand!
Premiering in 1976, “The Gin Game” by playwright D.L. Coburn won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1978. It was famously played by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn that same year. Their names have been linked to the play and the subsequent 1980 movie ever since. They too were husband and wife in real life.
The Sierra Madre Playhouse production is directed by Artistic Director Christian Lebano, and produced by Lebano and Estelle Campbell. Tesshi Nakagawa, Todd McCraw and Derek Jones are credited with creating the set which so carefully depicts the seediness of the “’home” where the old people live. The dramatic choreography is in the hands of Cate Caplin. Elizabeth Eichler is stage manager with assistance from Matthew Raymond. Elizabeth Nankin has chosen costumes such as elderly people would have worn in the late 1970s, and wigs are designed by Amanda Walter.
Come and see who will win “The Gin Game” on weekends through Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. Performances are on Sundays at 2:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Admission is $40 general, $36 for seniors (65+), and $25 for youth (22 and under). For reservations or more information, phone (626) 355-4318, or visit the website, sierramadreplayhouse.org for online ticketing. Reservations for groups of 10 or more can be made at the same phone number. The Playhouse is at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Eateries and free parking are nearby.