A winning hand for playgoers

theater review

Bay Theatre's 'Gin' lays out how pair are victims of their past behavior

March 01, 2009|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

A 2006 Bay Theatre Company benefit performance of D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game, starring Rena Cherry Brown and Paul Danaceau, inspired several requests for an extended run of the show, and that led Bay's artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne to ask the two Equity actors to appear in a six-week run on Bay Theatre's stage. Merry-Browne again uses her sensitive artistry in directing Bay's production of Coburn's 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

This production has an ideal setting crafted by designer Ken Sheats, who has created outside the enclosed porch a narrow flagstone patio with brown leaves edged by a few green plants with a hearty vine climbing the porch to suggest a mature life cycle.

A wooden porch swing provides a homey touch. On the porch are stored extra chairs, dingy floral-patterned folding cushions, a card table, a wooden storage cabinet, folded metal walkers and an aluminum pail for catching water that drips from the porch ceiling.

This is where resident Weller Martin and newcomer Fonsia Dorsey meet and play their gin games.

Helen Hayes Award-winning actress Brown makes a memorable entrance as newly arrived Bentley Retirement Home resident Fonsia. Wearing a bathrobe and slippers, she seems timid and frail as she checks out her new surroundings.

She soon encounters Danaceau's curmudgeonly Martin, eager to find companionship and lure her into playing cards with him to relieve the tedium of existence in this shabby place. Inviting Fonsia to play gin, Weller becomes animated as he deals and ritualistically counts out the cards - one-one, two-two, three-three - up to 11 cards for Fonsia and 10 for himself.

Amused when inexperienced Fonsia wins the first hand to defeat this self-proclaimed expert player, Weller becomes incredulous, then furious in successive games as Fonsia continues to win each hand as if it were predestined.

Determined to win at least once, Weller becomes so enraged that he frightens Fonsia, who grows increasingly timid as the rivalry becomes more intense.

With each hand played we learn more about Fonsia and Weller. At their second game the day after they meet, Weller, dressed in a blue blazer, stops to shine his shoes before his gin partner arrives. Fonsia might be wearing her best dress, seeming ready for a date. Both appear to be attracted to each other as they take a few tentative dance steps before beginning their second game.

Later, Fonsia's uncanny streak of luck might signify that it is her destiny to humiliate Weller. As she continues to win, Brown's Fonsia alternates from reluctantly whispering "gin" to triumphantly announcing "GIN!"

Why neither has any guests on Visitors' Day gradually becomes clear as their weaknesses are revealed. Once a successful businessman, bankrupt Weller has been betrayed by colleagues and desperately wants to win again, even if it requires manipulating and threatening Fonsia. As Weller probes, he discovers that Fonsia's earlier vindictiveness toward her son might explain why he never visits. Both are victims of the fate their past actions have created.

Together these veteran actors are funny and pitiable, lovable and exasperating, vulnerable and frightening, and masterly in their use of expletives. Danaceau's Weller humorously relieves his frustration and tension by cursing and badgering Fonsia before her continued winning engenders his torrent of shouted expletives. Initially offended by Weller's crude language, Brown creates drama filled with enormous release as she shouts Fonsia's long-repressed steamy expletive.

The Gin Game continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 28. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and students. For information and tickets: 410-268-1333.

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