Barter Theater Stage II Presentation of “The Gin Game” — A Review

John J. Hohn, Author

Perhaps a member of the audience needs to be at least 70 years old to realize that Director Eugene Wolfe missed the point of D. L. Coburn’s award winning play, “The Gin Game,” as it is currently being presented at The Barter Theater Stage II. Wolf  failed to grasp that he had three actors on stage, not two. The third actor, a presence really, is behind the door to the card room and is heard at times only in garbled gibberish, the way several voices all speaking at once sound at a distance.

The presence behind the door consists of the other residents of the elderly care home who are described as “glassy eyed” aged folks who babble meaninglessly and complain constantly about their health. The two principals in the play, Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey escape this tedious company by retreating to the card room—the room where nobody else ever goes. They do not want to be numbered among “intellectually and emotionally dead.”

A Virtuoso Performance

Mary Lucy Bivins delivers a virtuoso performance as Fonsia Dorsey, a 71 year old divorcee. Her portrayal is powerful, poignant and exquisitely nuanced. Too bad her director did not inspire the same level of artistry from her partner on stage, Richard Rose, who plays the aging and angry Weller Martin. Martin still seems eager to triumph somehow in life, even if it is in a game of cards. He is angry. In fact, that is about all the audience sees of Martin—anger, loud competitive anger. As an actor, surely Rose’s range is more expansive than what he projects. Anger can be expressed without yelling,after all, often in ways that are more terrifying.

Unlike Bivins, little in Rose’s portrayal shows that Martin is aware that his real antagonist lurks behind the door in the form of diminished capacity, pampers, and loss of identity. The blame for undershooting the role lies at the feet of Director Wolfe.

Martin and Dorsey are opponents at cards. Wolfe has them making the most predictable choices. They  fight each other for all the laughter it might produce. But the audience laughs at them, not with them. Weller and Martin, in turn, rant against the fate of their fellow residents, but never register a sympathetic note, nor dread, nor concern. They make it clear that they never want to be included among the other residents, but never give a hint of how threatened they may feel.

Failures as a Part of Us

Both Weller and Martin have regrets. Neither lived an apparently fulfilling life. Both are broke and on welfare. Both withhold the truth from the other in an effort to preserve their dignity. They confess their failures only when they recognize that by owning them they triumph for one more day over the ignominy of becoming non-persons in their dotage. Our failures are part of us, after all.

Martin induces Fonsia to play one more round of gin, ostensibly to give him a chance to eventually win. But the underlying reason in dealing the deck once more is to extend their unacknowledged conspiracy to push against the verdict in time when one or the other will be forced to join the unaware in the adjacent room. When Martin finally wins a hand, he accuses Fonsia of handing him the victory. She denies it, of course, but winning for Martin ends a quest. He abandons Fonsia, opens the door and  loses himself among the garbled voices beyond it. His departure leaves the audience guessing as to whether he departs because he is angry at Fonsia or because he knows that the victory he is being denied is winning at life.

Anger is a secondary emotion. Something always seethes beneath it. Perhaps in Martin’s case, it’s a storm of denial because sees the onset of his diminished competence which his losses at gin make obvious. Perhaps it’s fear because he knows he is losing control of himself. We never find out. In his bombast slams the door on any insight to what is really bothering him..

Dorsey’s final line, “Oh no.” is not that her partner has given up the card game in anger. Her dismay, rather, is as much for Martin as it is for herself because she knows that he has surrendered to his fate in joining the mindless souls in the room beyond, leaving her, cards or no cards, to fend for herself and alone. Bivins delivers the line perfectly. But her grief is lost on the audience because the her fear and Martin’s of the third presence is never brought to light under Wolfe’s direction. The audience, in fact, does not realize that the play ends with Dorsey’s anguished cry. It takes bringing up the house lights to let them know that the show is over.

The play is a must see if only to witness Bivin’s performance. Others may play Fonsia as well, but none will ever better her in the role.  She is memorable.

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