|Kathleen Silloway and Gary Romans|
By Tina Arth
I rarely make the trek to Gallery Theater, as McMinnville is a hefty ride down the 99 from SW Portland – but their current production of The Gin Game was well worth the drive. Director Joe Silva and Co-Director Valerie Steele clearly understand this oddly compelling cautionary tale about the perils of aging, and they have drawn from their actors exactly the performances the material demands.
D. L. Colburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1976 play provides plum roles for two strong actors “of a certain age” - in this production, Gary Romans (Weller) and Kathleen Silloway (Fonsia). Like other shows that deal with the last act in our lives, The Gin Game delivers a hefty dose of laughter leavened with sadness, anger, and depression – but unlike many such shows, it reveals no convenient silver lining to warm our hearts as we exit the theater. Had I not been faced with the drive home, I might have been inspired to go in search of a spot of gin for myself (the beverage, not the card game).
The play revolves around two residents of the Bentley Nursing Home, old hand Weller and newcomer Fonsia. Unlike most of the home’s residents, these two are neither mentally nor physically impaired – they are just too old to live alone and apparently unwanted by neglectful relatives. Weller sums it up nicely: “I have one of the most advanced cases of old age in medical history. The mortality rate’s incredible.” As the show progresses we get hints of the character traits that have contributed to their abandonment. They cling together over a three-week time span, at first united and ultimately divided by a series of card games (gin, naturally) that grow increasingly tense, until the final explosion leaves Weller, Fonsia, and the audience profoundly shaken.
Roman’s “Weller” is a wonderful mix of charm, persistence, impatience, anger and abusiveness, and he makes the most of every moment on stage. His comic and dramatic timing are superb, and he switches from one mood to another with Jekyll and Hyde-like precision. Silloway’s “Fonsia” has an emotional subtlety that almost fools us into thinking that she’s just a sweet old lady, done wrong by an uncaring world – it takes time to penetrate her strategy (at cards and life). Each time she lays her cards down and says “gin” we come closer to understanding her passive-aggressively manipulative side; although she never really drops her pose of fragility and innocence, she gradually shows her hand.
James Steele’s set functions almost like a third character. As silent nursing home attendant Jordan Mackor “fixes” the broken finial with chewing gum, breaks the flower pot, and props the window open with a roll of toilet paper we are drawn to the key details of a set – a lonely patio, cluttered with once-lovely touches now in the throes of inexorable decay - that functions as a detailed metaphor for the lives of Bentley’s inhabitants.
Co-directors Silva and Steele have paced the show nicely, bringing it in under two hours even with intermission. Lighting designer Jason Alexander and (14 year old!) light board operator Kylee Longaker help create a variety of daytime and evening moods that complement and enhance the scene, accenting the characters’ changing emotional states.
The Gin Game is running at Gallery Theater, 210 NE Ford Street, McMinnville through Saturday, May 6 with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m.