Encore Michigan

Maguire and Crawford deal a winning hand in ‘The Gin Game’ at The Williamston

Review March 31, 2019 Bridgette Redman

WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–Since The Gin Game first took to the stage on Broadway in 1977, it has frequently featured married couples playing Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey in this two-handed show. Then it was Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

Now, here in Williamston, local audiences get treated to local acting royalty, the married couple Hugh Maguire and Ruth Crawford. While they have appeared together on stages across the state, this is their first time together on Williamston’s stage.

It’s a show well suited for married couples, even though the characters are not.

D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1978, is an intense show where the two residents of a run-down nursing home lock horns over games of gin rummy. Both are fairly new residents; Weller has been there two months and is a retired businessman with a foul mouth and temper. Fonsia has been there only a few weeks and is a divorced woman who is bitter about most of the men in her life.

While they have some attraction to each other in that neither are as catatonic as they find the other members of the home, they duel emotionally and quickly show why they get no visitors on Visitor Sundays.

Maguire and Crawford have that finely honed charisma that let their characters instantly form a bond, a bond that instantly ties them together and subsequently brings out the worst in each other. Their interactions are raw and unhesitating.

Directed by John Lepard, The Gin Game is well paced for a traditional two-act with intermission 70’s style show. He expertly builds the emotional ups and downs of the show, allowing for the greatest possible punch at the show’s climactic moments.

Both actors manage well the fine line between being old and at various points in pain or ill while still being active and mentally sharp. They both manage to eschew stereotypes, though sometimes they dance too far away from how they are described in the script.

Weller accuses Fonsia of being vindictive and self-righteous. While the descriptions of her past actions support that accusation, Crawford’s Fonsia is mostly charming, quick to laugh, and witty. It is only in the most intense moments that she gets truly nasty.

Likewise, Maguire’s Weller is a pretty likeable curmudgeon most of the time, and like Fonsia, the audience grows concerned about his mental health, for despite his intelligence, it is clear he is slipping into degenerative episodes.

And yet, it is that refusal to be any one thing that makes these characters so interesting. Crawford and Maguire give us glimpses of what these two people could have, the joy they might experience, if it weren’t for overwhelming characters flaws that cause their eventual downfall.

An interesting aspect of the script is that Fonsia continually accuses Weller of violence—and he is certainly violent in his language and performs acts that are violent upon the furniture. Yet, she is the one who physically strikes him—and on more than one occasion. It highlights the conflict between men and women and what sorts of violence we consider acceptable. In this scenario, we see that when men get violent, women get frightened. When women get violent, men apologize for provoking it. The Gin Game doesn’t offer an answer for this, but it does propose it as something for its audience to chew on.

Gabriella Casapo’s scenic design creates the run-down environment of a nursing home whose residents are barely cared for. Things look broken-down, poorly maintained and roughly slapped together, all of which becomes a metaphor for the end-of-life experience these two lonely people find themselves in. Mismatched chairs provide little comfort for the residents and old wheelchairs are abandoned in haphazard manner.

While there is plenty of humor in it, The Gin Game isn’t a comedy. Rather it is a show that challenges us to explore a variety of themes encompassing how we relate to each other, how we destroy each other, how we neglect each other, and how we drive others away from us.  Williamston puts on a high-quality production of this classic drama which has been giving meaty opportunities to stellar older actors since it first debuted in the 70s.

Led by Lepard, Maguire and Crawford do justice to this show’s rich history of fine performances.

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