Theater review: ‘The Gin Game’ at Hendersonville Community Theatre

GAME ON: Weller Martin (played by Rick Huhn, left) seems content enough in this low-end retirement community. But when he meets the new resident Fonsia Dorsey (Cathy Fischer) he is more than eager to cheer her up and teach her the game of gin.
GAME ON: Weller Martin (played by Rick Huhn, left) seems content enough in this low-end retirement community. But when he meets the new resident Fonsia Dorsey (Cathy Fischer) he is more than eager to cheer her up and teach her the game of gin. Photo courtesy of Hendersonville Community Theatre

The Gin Game is not a friendly card game but a sardonic comedy. It is the kind of play that is perfect for intimate theaters such as Hendersonville Community Theatre’s second stage. The Gin Game — onstage through Sunday, May 6 — is a bleak story; the script left me feeling hollow and slightly unsatisfied. But director Bob Reece and the cast have made it so much more than that. It is also thought-provoking and truly funny.

D.L. Coburn’s 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning play opens on an old man playing solitaire. Weller Martin seems content enough in this low-end retirement community. But when he meets the new resident Fonsia Dorsey he is more than eager to cheer her up and teach her the game of gin.

Their first encounter is sweet. Sure, he is sarcastic and she is timid, but they seem to have been given a chance at true friendship in their golden years. However, the flirty tone of their conversation quickly dissolves as Fonsia proves to be a natural at cards and beats Weller game after game — triggering Weller into increasingly violent fits of rage.

But they have something in common: No one ever visits them. It is this loneliness, more than anything, that bonds them. It is hard to say if they are true friends or merely uneasy allies in a nursing home full of glassy-eyed patients. Whatever it is, they are drawn to one another.

Rick Huhn does a fantastic job as the hot-headed Weller Martin. He brought a genuineness to the role that made me want to give him chance after chance. Cathy Fischer was the perfect choice to play Fonsia Dorsey. If it were not for her doe-eyed innocence I would have thought her character was a card shark. Fischer, however, proved that there was more than meets the eye with the mild mannered Fonsia and, push come to shove, she could hold her own.

Tempers and cards fly as the play crescendos into an uncomfortable truth. These two have not chosen one another, they are stuck with one another. The promise of a friendship dissolves into vulgar language and disturbingly abusive codependency. Intimate secrets are revealed and used not as ways to bond but as ammunition. But, don’t be fooled, if this were simply a play about two cantankerous elders it would have lost its appeal years ago. Like the characters, there is more just below the surface. How much of life is luck? How much of it is skill? Are we shaped by the cards we are dealt or is it how we play them?

The pair play hand after hand, wearing each other down. Each time Fonsia wins, the audience held its breath willing a different outcome, but the characters seem trapped by the hands they have been dealt. The cyclical nature of the show gives it the helpless feeling of Waiting for Godot. Coburn’s script may paint a life as bitter, but HCT’s actors made it almost sweet.

WHAT: The Gin Game
WHERE: Hendersonville Community Theatre, 229 S. Washington St., Hendersonville, HendersonvilleTheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, May 6. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $16

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