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How not to grow old gracefully

“The Gin Game” is a bitter, vituperative battle of wits, passive aggression and manipulative coercion; it’s a nightmare version of those final years of life.

“The Gin Game,” featuring Shirley Patton as Fonsia Dorsey and Stuart Rider as Weller Martin, opened last week at the Camelot Theatre.

Most of us hope that our last years will be a peaceful transition of body, mind and soul, but Dorsey and Martin play out our worst fears in “The Gin Game.” Dorsey and Martin live in a shabby nursing home, have no financial means and have run off their families. They are emotionally and physically isolated and are filled with resentment and regret. A card game brings them together and drives them to an ever more vicious contest of wills as they tear each other apart.

“The Gin Game,” written by Donald Coburn, premiered in Los Angeles in 1976 before moving to Broadway, where it won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play was selected for Camelot’s 2019 lineup as a vehicle for Patton, who has performed in theaters throughout the Rogue Valley and was a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival company for 30 seasons.

Luck and strategy, chance and destiny also face off in “The Gin Game,” particularly in the character of Martin. As Martin, Stuart Rider is determined to best even God as he challenges the cards, time and again. Rider’s almost manic card counting — one one, two two, three three — his foot beats ever more aggressively with each failed hand. Rider casts Martin’s dark violence through the theater, his physical violence matched by cruel language, fearful and threatening to experience.

“He’s convinced that God is against him,” says Rider of his character. “He’s in a personal grudge match with God, and that’s why he gets under my skin.”

The possibility of companionship, hope for an odd peace of sorts, continues through much of the second act. A waltz brings some closeness between the two leads, a storm drives them together, and disclosures are treated almost with caring. Dorsey and Martin are almost gentle with each other — at least until the next game of cards and the schizophrenic transformation the shuffles conjure.

The Camelot Theatre was the best possible setting for “The Gin Game.” The theater is not large, and the risers bring the stage close to the audience. There are only two acts, and two scenes in each act — “The Gin Game” is a short and intense play, explosive with anger, corrupted by meanness and unrelieved by beauty. The facial expressions of the two leads, Patton and Rider, their sometimes almost mumbled lines and graphic gestures are clearly evident and feel like a punch to the gut.

As a person, Patton is an icon of kindness and grace; she is never without a generous word or a brilliant smile. Patton’s lifelong dedication to theater is extraordinary, and while many Southern Oregon theatergoers know of her work, they may not have seen her perform. To see Patton’s performance as Fonsia Dorsey in “The Gin Game” was a revelation.

As Dorsey, Patton’s gaze is wide-eyed and empty, her mouth often agape, and her halting shuffle the essence of encroaching dementia. Patton’s character, though, knows all too well what she’s doing, and as Dorsey, Patton rises to every invective-filled, vicious occasion.

“We all have these fears that we don’t always talk about and look at these things we wish we could change but it’s too late,” says Gwen Overland, who directed the Camelot production. “We go through it with our parents or our grandparents, but we somehow believe that we’ll surf through those times ourselves; life becomes small moments between pain and pleasure.”

“The Gin Game” continues through May 19 in the Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave. The show runs about 90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission and is best suited for mature audiences. For more information and tickets, see CamelotTheatre.org or call the box office at 541-535-5250.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Shirley Patton and Stuart Rider in Camelot Theatre's "The Gin Game." Photo by Steve Sutfin