Spotlighters' version of 'Gin Game' doesn't do justice to Coburn's script

June 13, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff B

A friendly game of gin rummy evolves into the deadly game of life in Donald L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize winning work, "The Gin Game," on stage at the Spotlighters Theatre through June 30.

A two-character play, this local version (which has some moments), features Robert Bayer as Weller, an irascible resident of a rundown retirement home and Margery Germaine as Fonsia, the newest tenant. She is a victim of diabetes and he is contending with the common affliction known as "old age."

Trapped by the welfare system both are suffering from loneliness, fear and frustration over the loss of their individual lives.

A taut, tense comedy-drama flecked with the poignant humor of the human condition, this gem of a play provides a simple framework to explore the lives of two people who have come to the end of the road.

A loner, Weller seems to have exiled himself to the porch where he induces Fonsia to play a game of gin rummy with him. She is a beginner. Playing for fun she always wins. He is grimly serious. Dismayed then enraged when Fonsia never loses he turns the game into a war.

Winning becomes obsession with Weller. In the playing past failures, regrets, hurts and mistakes -- their whole lives -- surface and, in the final round, the two become vicious antagonists.

The tragedy is they could help each other but it is not in the cards.

Despite this hardly adequate production directed without insight or technical skill by Bayer, the script itself stands alone and, as such, is worth the price of admission.

These complex roles that must reveal a myriad of conflicting emotions were originated on Broadway by acting greats Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in 1978. No more need be said.

As directed by Bayer, the work is being played too much for the obvious laugh. Scenes of dramatic tension are sloughed over. As a result the audience is conditioned to laugh, and laughs occur where there should be none.

The fault also lies with Bayer's bombastic performance as Weller. He comes across as a one-dimensional, snarling, growling boor. Bayer has no constructive building of character and constantly substitutes volume for genuine emotion.

Aggressive and angry at the beginning, Bayer has no where to go. He is all on one shouting level. There are no important transitions, variations of thought or subtlety of character.

The blocking is poor in this theater-in-the-round setup. The card table is the central prop, where the main action takes place. Bayer, a large man, sits with his back to one segment of the audience throughout the play shutting out their view of what is happening at the table.

A better suggestion would be for Bayer to place himself at at angle, back to a post and let Germaine change chairs for each scene. Or place the table in the center of the stage at an angle between two posts. The characters could change chairs for each scene.

Germaine does far better in her role as a woman who has been repressed all her life. Estranged from her son she hides her hurt behind a morally, uptight nature. Although appalled at Weller's profanity, as the play progresses to its devastating end, she is reduced to using the same "awful four-letter word."

Germaine is fine with a genuinely natural delivery, although, at times she also has too-strong projection. More shading and subtlety is needed for this actress' character.


On stage at the Arena Playhouse is "Little Miss Dreamer," a musical biography of Bessie Smith by New York playwright Ed Shockley.

A Maryland premiere, the show features Wynonia Rhock as Smith, one of the best blues singers in the late '20s and early '30s. A protege of Ma Rainey, she started her singing career at age 9 and had was very successful until she reached her 40s. Severely injured in a car crash, she bled to death on the steps of a Clarksdale, Miss., hospital where she was refused admittance.

The production, which continues through June 30, is directed by Sam Wilson with live musical direction by William Riggsby. Ma Rainey is played by popular local actress and singer Lea Gilmore.

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