Director Roland Branford Gomez pulls his punches in Little Theatre of Alexandria's production of "The Gin Game," D.L. Coburn's 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of two elderly people who have trouble facing the deterioration of their lives from ordinary but bleak existence to grim isolation.
Coburn wrote an unflinching look at emotional seclusion and its bitter aftertaste in the twilight of two people's lives. But Gomez has his two actors play it for laughs leavened with poignancy until late in the second act, where the darkness finally emerges to clash with the light touch, leading to an awkward finale.
Two discarded people, Fonsia (Margaret Bush) and Weller (Paul Danaceau), meet on the porch of a nursing home. With no one to visit them, they turn to each other and begin a series of gin rummy games. Fonsia is a newcomer to the game and Weller is supposed to be the expert, but she wins every hand, driving her partner to exasperation, and eventually, to explosive anger. As they play, they engage in a battle of wits that leads to painful revelations. It is a character-driven slice-of-life, rather than a complete story.
The play was made famous by Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, who played it to perfection on Broadway and in national tours. By the time of the hit 1997 Broadway revival, it had become much more cuddly, partly at the insistence of legendary actress Julie Harris, who asked that a dance scene between Fonsia and Weller be added. That seems to be the version Gomez is using, and while it makes the characters less forlorn, and, one supposes, more commercially viable, something has been lost. Even the beautifully designed set, an eye-pleasing collaboration from John Downing and Bill Glikbarg, is much too bright and pretty for what is supposed to be a drab institutional facility.
All that aside, however, this production is remarkable for the performance of Bush, who disappears completely into the role of Fonsia, a character decades older than the performer. Bush is unrecognizable as the new resident of the nursing home, a 71-year-old woman who is distant from her family and sorrowful over losing her independence.
Bush plays her closer to 81 years old than 71, which seems appropriate, showing us a woman diminished by age without resorting to stereotype or exaggeration. She's stiff, not shuffling; her voice, expressed in a gentle Southern drawl, is dried out but not quavering. Bush dedicates her performance to her "two precious grandmothers, Nana and Gramommie," and one suspects that there is more than a little of these two in her work here.
Bush plays Fonsia with pixyish charm, getting laughs each time she gently lays her cards down and announces "gin." The laughs come from creation of character rather than shtick, and it's too bad Gomez did not let her fully explore the dark side of this emotionally crippled woman. Perhaps he was too busy with Danaceau, who is less nuanced in his portrayal of a man who is supposed to use surface charm to hide smoldering resentment. Instead, we mostly get exasperation, played for laughs. It is amusing but unfulfilling and does not prepare us for the ugly, abrupt ending, which was so badly timed during an opening weekend performance that the actors were met with embarrassed silence at the beginning of their curtain call by a confused audience.
Overall, however, Little Theatre of Alexandria has delivered its usual sophisticated production, and Bush's performance is skillful and enjoyable. The director uses the medium well but still loses the message.
"The Gin Game" continues through Nov. 19 at Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria. Showtime is 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets or information, call the box office at 703-683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.