“Oh boy, cards! The paper rectangles old people think are fun!”
—Luz Noceda, The Owl House
Often the odd man out in my extended family, I differ from much of them perhaps most markedly in my persistent indifference to card games. Cards actually rather fascinate me as objects, as iconography, as metaphor; I just seldom enjoy most card games much, despite growing up amidst an intergenerational school of card sharks.
So Luz Noceda’s cheerfully careless remark above has some resonance for me, especially the younger me of yore. Card games were things the older folks in my life always enjoyed, though I never fully saw the appeal; but you don’t have to be old or a card player or both to appreciate Watermark Theatre’s superb production of The Gin Game, which makes about 90 minutes of old people playing cards weirdly compelling.
A big part of that is the Pulitzer-winning, Tony-nominated script penned by Donald L. Coburn back in 1976, which spawned several successful Broadway runs. Called “virtually plotless” by the New York Times, this two-person, two-act play depicts a series of gin rummy games played by two troubled residents of a shabby seniors home, Weller Martin (portrayed here by Richard Clarkin) and Fonsia Dorsey (Gracie Finley).
Sounds simple, and it is, but layers abound: both players are holding secrets—regrets, grudges, prejudices, delusions, ambitions, hopes and agendas—and it all comes out as their card games become increasingly combative, deeply personal and ultimately destructive. Turns out those paper rectangles were loaded.
Director Robert Tsonos and company bring this darkly witty, impressively compact and occasionally disturbing tragicomedy to vivid life, crisply realizing all aspects of the production. This includes Pat Caron’s richly immersive light and sound design and Cory Sincennes’ lushly detailed, palpably decaying nursing home exterior set, which packs remarkable depth and levels into the small Watermark space, pretty much the perfect venue for a show this focused and intimate.
None of that means much in a two-person play without two good actors inhabiting that space, breathing life into the story, and the Clarkin-Finley duo does that in spades. Both build distinctive, fully incarnated characters in terms of attitude, energy, physical presence and intention, such that we get a sense of who and what these characters are even when they’re not saying a word.
They say lots of words, of course, and Finley and Clarkin adroitly navigate it all in sequences ranging from playful banter to profane shouting matches to anguished confessions; and yet some of their quieter moments are among the most indelibly memorable, like a solo-dancing Finley dreamily swaying to nearby music, or a broken Clarkin slowly hobbling away.
It’s a short, simple play featuring a compact cast in a small space, but Watermark’s The Gin Game seems likely to loom large in this PEI theatrical summer as one of the smartest, most artfully crafted offerings of 2021.