COURTESY HAWAII PACIFIC UNIVERSITY
Don Pomes and Joyce Maltby are the dueling card players in "The Gin Game."
Actors bring subtle depth to HPU's winning drama
"The Gin Game,"
presented by Hawaii Pacific University, continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, though April 16. Tickets are $20, with discounts for Thursday performances. Call 375-1282.
FIRST impressions aren't always accurate. Judged by its synopsis, D.L. Coburn's two-character drama, "The Gin Game," might be taken for a play that's about little more than nothing: "Two residents of a seedy nursing home reveal intimate details about their lives while playing cards."
So much for first impressions! As brought to life at Hawaii Pacific University by Joyce Maltby, Don Pomes and director Mitchell Milan, this 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning story entertains on several levels as it evolves from sitcom-style comedy to a surprising epiphany.
The characters of Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin are best played by actors old enough to relate to their experiences, and Maltby and Pomes are perfectly matched in this production.
Dorsey and Martin are recently arrived residents of the Bentley Home for the Elderly, a rundown nursing home/holding pen where old people of little means wait to die. Both are 70-somethings, long-divorced and estranged from their children. They share a sardonic amusement at the condition of the older and more infirm inmates, and a sense of bitter resignation to the thievery and condescending attitude of the staff.
They meet on a Sunday. It's visiting day, but neither has a visitor. Martin is keen on gin rummy and considers himself an expert player. Dorsey declines his initial invitation to play; she doesn't know much about cards, she says. Martin replies that he doesn't mind sharing his knowledge, and so the game begins.
Guess who wins? And wins again, and again, and again?
It soon becomes apparent that Martin is not a gracious loser, and he can't let it go. There always has to be "just one more game."
HPU's production may benefit from the fact that Maltby, director of HPU's theater program, and Pomes, who brings five decades of experience to the show, have done "The Gin Game" together before. They succeed in playing out the subtleties of the action without exaggerating them. Maltby's nuanced use of facial expression and slight changes in posture tell all as we watch Dorsey draw a card and then silently wrestle with the dilemma of either incurring Martin's wrath by declaring "gin" or incurring his wrath by getting caught playing to lose.
As Martin becomes more abusive in defeat, Dorsey responds with taunts. "I'm no expert," she says tartly after a few more hands have gone her way. "I just play like an expert!"
Martin and Dorsey gradually reveal the bad choices and lost opportunities that have brought them to this dead-end existence. What's most interesting is the gradual awareness that neither of them understands the extent to which they may have brought on much of their own misfortune.
Director Milan displays an excellent awareness of time management and comic momentum in directing this surprisingly deep two-act play. Nothing drags, yet none of the character development is shortchanged.
Set designer Karen Archibald uses an assortment of old furniture, a wheelchair and miscellaneous items to reinforce the feeling that the home is a place where unwanted things are put aside. Peggy Krock's choice of costumes likewise provides visual cues to the characters' sense of self.
It's said that Coburn originally intended the story to end on a darker and more conclusive note than it does, but Maltby and Pomes make the ending dark enough.