Theater review: ‘The Gin Game’ at HART Theatre

HOUSE OF CARDS: Judy Dybwad and David Spivey star in Donald L. Coburn's masterpiece 'The Gin Game.' Photo courtesy of HART Theatre

When life deals you a bad hand, you’ve still got to learn to play the game. The deck is all shuffled and the stage is set for Donald L. Coburn’s masterpiece The Gin Game at HART Theatre’s Feichter Studio, showing through Sunday, Feb. 24.

Two elderly residents, Weller Martin (played by David Spivey) and Fonsia Dorsey (Judy Dybwad), meet on the sun porch of their run-down nursing home. When Weller invites Fonsia to his lonely card table to teach her how to play gin rummy, they ruminate over their families, their pasts and their current living conditions. However, their card game quickly develops into a match of wits, and Fonsia becomes fearful of the insecure Weller when her continuous triumphs send him into hysterics.

The Gin Game was chosen as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner of 1978. It is perhaps best remembered as being portrayed on Broadway by Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Tandy would go on to win the Tony Award for playing Fonsia.

Coburn’s script is still as edgy and fascinatingly minimalistic as it ever was. This is not an easy accomplishment considering the play’s card game is a metaphor on the challenges of aging. The continuous games between the two characters are basically all the action we get, and it becomes entrancing. It is easily one of the best-written plays in the last 50 years.

Needless to say, Spivey and Dybwad have a lot to live up to. There is an inherent connection between them from the very beginning. Both characters meet in disheveled loungewear, allowing for a glimpse of each other at their lowest point. As a bond begins to form between the characters, the costumes make it feel as if they are playing dress-up for each other, despite their dismal surroundings. However, this does cause the scene changes to run too long.

Dybwad has the more ambiguous character. She is a woman holding onto something secret, possibly a manipulative past. Dybwad’s astute portrayal serves the production well. The delivery of her random curse words is effective when provoked by Weller’s blatant potty mouth.

Spivey is wonderful as the hard-edged man who seems to be losing touch with himself. When his face becomes flushed, we feel his inner emotion. The play’s message is nicely highlighted in his simple line, “I guess we just lived too long, Fonsia.”

Amazingly, the acting duo directed this production together with some help by Shelia Sumpter. While this certainly helped structure an emotional connection, it might not have brought the most interesting vision to the piece. Certain moments of sustained fear and anger, especially at the end of Act 1, need more fluidity. However, these two great veteran actors are capable of adding the necessary intensity. They are entertaining to watch.

The Gin Game resounds with witty humor by poking fun at the matters of aging. It then cleverly challenges our comfort zone with deep drama, scolding us for making light of such a serious subject.

WHAT: The Gin Game

WHERE: HART Theatre, 250 Pigeon St., Waynesville, harttheatre.org

WHEN: Through Sunday, Feb. 24. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $7-13

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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