IF YOU GO
What: Two senior citizens argue and play gin
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 5; & Friday, Jan. 6.
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
Information: 1-800-838-3006 x1 or brownpapertickets.com
More: The play contains adult language
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A three-night production of Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Gin Game" opened at the Norris Center in Naples with a winning hand Wednesday. There's foul language, tears, terror and, in the end, truth. There's plenty of gin too - but no juice. We're playing cards - and Fonsia's on a hot streak.
D.L. Coburn wrote the play in the mid-1970s; he uses a series of card games set at a nursing home as a metaphor for life. Two lonely senior citizens - Fonsia Dorsey (Kay Francis) and Weller Martin (Tom Milligan) - battle through an increasingly tense few hands of gin as they try to expose each other's weaknesses. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starred in the play on Broadway (it ran for 517 performances); the play is closely associated with them.
Neapolitan audiences - and anyone in or above their sixth decade - will recognize and appreciate the wit, humor and tragedy in the show. Coburn admits that he thought he was writing a tragedy - until audiences laughed during the premiere. Wednesday's audience did to - loud and often. You will too.
Fonsia and Weller find themselves two of the brightest bulbs in a dingy welfare patient nursing home. Gulfshore Playhouse starts work on "Race" Friday, but the thougtful set has plenty of details - especially the accessories. Look for dead potted plants nested inside portable toilets (nice touch!) or crooked Venetian blinds discolored by years of sunlight and smoking.
Ace card player Weller invites shy newcomer Fonsia for a few hands of gin. She wins one hand, then another and another. Francis imbues her Fonsia with a sly grin every time she lays down her cards. Every card Weller lays down, Fonsia picks up. Milligan makes his Weller a towering volcano about to burst. Gin. Gin. Gin. The card games grow bitter - yet, the audience (and the participants) can't look away. Gin. Gin. Gin.
Weller gets angry at Fonsia - and at the fates for this perversion. Despite this, the pair continue to play. Gin. Gin. Gin. Fonsia needles Weller. Weller attacks Fonsia. Gin. Gin. Gin. Until the volcano explodes.
Coburn's rat-a-tat dialogue gives life to two people literally trying to tear the life out of each other as they make every effort to maintain a civilized front (at least until the gloves come off and the profanities come out). The actors also know how to use even the smallest gestures - the slap of a palm on the table, a sigh, a long minute spent re-arranging cards in the hand - to great effect.
You wouldn't think that watching two people play cards would be so interesting - but it is. Francis and Milligan have an easy camaraderie; behind their banter, Coburn brings to light some of the very real issues facing senior citizens - such as abandonment, poverty, loneliness and over-medication. x
Director Deborah Kennedy does a solid job staging the card-playing sequences. With two characters sitting in a fixed point on stage for long periods of time, attention spans can wander. She gives her characters plenty to do, such as fetching cushions, ashtrays, cleaning their glasses, dropping cards. Only a few points sag - and those may work out in time.
Francis and Milligan will revive the show later this year at The Old Creamery Theatre Company in Amana, Iowa; these performances are a workshop version in preparation for that production.
The show does need to work on its climactic scenes. Without spoiling the plot, there are multiple points where characters get loud, violent and talk like street urchins on stage. Many of these - especially the climactic end to the first half - felt forced or at least tentative Wednesday. Raising the stakes in these scenes can only help drive home the point that the characters are trapped in a death spiral of despair.
Drambuie. Everclear. Frangelico. GIN! Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.