A Premature Burial: Theatre Memphis' GIN GAME is a Safe Bet

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GIN! JoLynn and Jim Palmer on a winning streak in The Gin Game. - THEATRE MEMPHIS
  • Theatre Memphis
  • GIN! JoLynn and Jim Palmer on a winning streak in The Gin Game.

UPDATE: "Sadly, due to a continued health issue, the remaining shows for The Gin Game at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage are cancelled." If you want to know what you missed, keep reading.

Nutshell descriptions of D.L. Coburn's one hit wonder of a play, The Gin Game, can be difficult. "Elderly man and woman get to know one another over cards," Sounds slit-your-wrists boring, right? Well, exactly. But The Gin Game— when it cooks— is a play about Hell. Or maybe it's a play about purgatory, which is just Hell-light.  At any rate, it's a subtle, pee-smelling horror story about two damned souls who aren't dead yet. Old man Weller and Miss Fonsia are a strangely matched set of gargoyles thrown together by fate for the express purpose of making drama. Lonely and unvisited, they seek to avoid the popular nursing home patients (and the comatose), and they wince when a church choirs sing hymns in the next room. Together, and with more occasions for comedy than one might imagine given the effortlessly infernal setup, these friends of necessity dissect their miserable circumstance over an absurd game of cards. And they dissect one another.

I'm overstating a little. I know nobody else is reading the same bloodless slasher script I'm reading. And I certainly don't think Coburn, who added a darling little dance bit to The Gin Game following a 90's-era revival, sees himself as a master of horror. But there's a haunting and haunted quality that gives his play its edge. If you figured in a shrouded representation of grim Death (and maybe some mushrooms growing out of control in a corner) it could be an Ionesco study. Build in some visual puns and it might be one of Tom Stoppard's odd meta-fantasies about an old folks home for the surviving victims of tragic melodrama. It could be Endgame for people with no patience for that mess. Theatre Memphis' production, as directed by Marler Stone, is more ordinary, and that's not a bad thing. It's also more sympathetic and framed by junky verisimilitudes that compete with the actors for attention. But if you like good acting, this is must-see theater. Stone insured it would be when he cast regional theater power couple Jim and JoLynn Palmer as Weller and Fonsia. 

JoLynn's an earthy hoot, and one of the most convincing performers I've ever seen. When she says, "Look there," you look every time. She got you! And it never grows stale. Her Fonsia is fragile as a glass ornament and just as transparent. Like a lost Tennessee Williams secondary character, her reality is carefully constructed, held in place by manners and routine. Weller's a rogue — superficially charming, but rough at the edges. He's overwhelming and obnoxiously competitive with an ugly, explosive temper. Weller's probably harmless, but you never know. Jim Palmer, last seen as a singing root-digger in Mountain View at TheatreWorks, shape-shifts into the role. It's a finely-tuned performance, nakedly honest and full of rage. He's a geriatric Biff Loman with a hint of Stanley Kowalski: Unlucky in cards, love, business... you name it. 

The Gin Game teases (threatens?) the possibility of mid-winter romance. But just when things seem to be heating up an emotional blizzard sets in. Fangs and claws replace smiles and helping hands. It can be devastating, and for the most part Stone's production delivers. 

I'm an admirer of Jack Yates' scenic work, but sometimes less is more. HIs detailed set for The Gin Game feels like a thoughtfully-constructed misfire. It suits the story perfectly. The clutter, decay and covered storage approach metaphor. But this needs to be a closeup. It needs to be about two actors and not much else. The beautiful work the Palmers are doing together should be framed by their environment, not adrift in it. 

Sad News from Theatre Memphis: "Due to a continued health issue, the remaining shows for The Gin Game at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage are cancelled."


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