The Gin Game

(Centenary Theatre Group)


Amateur production

Author: D.L. Coburn

Retirement villages and nursing homes have always provided rich material for comedy remember the television series Waiting for God with Stephanie Cole and Graham Crowden?

In truth, the inhabitants of these places are often sad rather than funny, so to make the comedy work there has to be an outside perspective, usually in the form of an inmate who still has sharp mental facilities or is able to get back at the authorities by being just physically fit enough to be independent. And if there can be a suggestion of twilight romance as well, hinting that all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds, it gives the audience a lift, rather than forcing them to face the grim possibility that old age is about being neglected and unloved..

The Gin Game begins with all these premises firmly in place. Grumpy Old Man, who never gets any visitors, is playing Solitaire in a rarely-used sun porch (now there’s a metaphor for you!) in an el-cheapo retirement village/nursing home. Enter Nervous Middle-aged Woman, who has just booked in. Although she’s really too young for the place, she has a medical problem that needs constant management.

Both are intelligent, articulate and very much alive, unlike the rest of the inhabitants, whose only social life, according to the GOM, is going to funerals. And so he introduces her to the card game Gin, which she knew as Gin Rummy, and played in her youth, much to the horror of her stern Methodist father.

And so it seems inevitable that romance will blossom. She comes across as the all-American ’70s female the deferential, silly-ol’-me flirtatious type but as she beats him time after time, and he becomes increasingly angry and violent, we see that there’s a darker side to both of them, and that this is no twilight romance, but a re-run of their failed marriages, and that their relationship is just another minor skirmish in the universal war of the sexes.

The play won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978, and its energetic script is given the full treatment by director Gary O’Neil and those two great stalwarts of the Brisbane stage, Brian Cannon and Beverley Wood. It’s such a treat to see experienced, super-competent actors take on a taxing two-hander like this, and to know that nothing is going to go wrong. They handle it perfectly, from timing to accent to intonation, and the only suspension of disbelief I had to will for myself was to accept Beverley Wood as a 65-year-old, so graceful and beautiful she is.

Brian Cannon made this role his own, and I can’t imagine either Ron Haddrick or Leonard Teale, who have both played the part, doing it any better than this superb performance. Loveable, exasperating and deeply tragic by turns, Cannon is every sad old man you’ve ever seen, and even his dangerous rages are (almost) forgivable as the details of his past slowly emerge.

In the hands of a lesser actor, the twitchy faded Southern belle could have become a tedious caricature, but Woods allows her to be the woman the playwright created, a deeply flawed but brave woman whose flighty faade has always masked her real strength.

This was such a good production that I hope they’ll give it a re-run later in the year, so that more people can get to see it. It proves that amateur theatre isn’t always for amateurs.

Directed by Gary O’Neil

Playing until 12 March 2005

Running time: 1 hr 45 min

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 11th March 2005)