Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in D.L. Coburn’s THE GIN GAME, directed by Leonard Foglia. The production is playing through January 10, 2016 at the Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street). © Joan Marcus

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in D.L. Coburn’s THE GIN GAME, directed by Leonard Foglia. The production is playing through January 10, 2016 at the Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street).
© Joan Marcus

by Tulis McCall

What becomes a legend most?  GIN.  Or in this case The Gin Game with Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.  Four decades after it opened on Broadway this is a story that has lost none of its poignance or its punch.

Weller (Jones) and Fonsia (Tyson) have found themselves holding on to the short end of the stick in a a home for the aged that has no location or time.  Life has come up empty, but these two are still tilting at windmills and will not go gently into that good night.

Weller spends his days sitting on the porch playing solitaire until Fonsia appears.  Both are relative newcomers to this place, but not to the reality of their situations.  They fly through the unpleasantries of their mutual situations.  Weller tells Fonsia

You do have to go somewhere. If you live long enough, sooner or later you end up in one of these places.

Rather quickly, however, Weller sees Fonsia as the answer to his unspoken dream: a card partner.

Fonsia, and this is the tricky part here, says she has a vague knowledge of the game.  Weller explains the rules and counts out the cards with the deliberate attention of a brain surgeon calling for instruments.  They glide through the first hand and Fonsia displays no knowledge of card playing protocol.  Within a few minutes, however, she lays down her hand and declares ‘Gin!”  Weller takes this as beginners luck and soon they are on a roll of the best 2 out of 3 etc.  Fonsia wins again.  And again.  And again.  And Weller becomes less the gallant than the bitter lonely man he is.

The Gin Game is reduced to what all card games are, a way to peel away a particular spot on the spine of our personality.  Me, I have a hard time with card games because I hate losing.  Especially when there is calculation going on in the heads of the other players.  What are they thinking and what should I do about it and how can I play my hand at the same time?  Weller is not confused so much as he is directly connected to his true and deep anger about how life dumped him off the band wagon.  Gin is his way of restoring his claim on a sliver of the planet called the back porch of the home.  When Fonsia denies him that by her luck as a Gin player, life falls apart for Weller.

Weller and Fonsia are like the last two people on earth.  They have been exiled from society because they have no money.  They exile themselves from their fellow “inmates” because they are too depressing.  They exile them selves from visiting days because the well-intentioned can be thoughtless and cruel.  Fonsia and Weller cling to one another and repel one another at the same time.  When they reach an intimate moment Weller is compelled to bring out the cards once again.  And in each game there is a small death because Fonsia is killing his card skills.  Fonsia returns to the back porch again and again like a moth to a light bulb.  She cannot stay away, even though she knows they will end up playing cards and everything will fall apart when they do.

This production does nothing to interfere with Coburn’s writing, but neither does it elevate the story to a new level.  James Earl Jones is anchor and center of this play.  He is smooth as silk when Weller is on course, and watching him succumb to the power of the cards is a thing of beauty and deep sadness.     Tyson on the other hand seems more caricature than character, especially in the early minutes of the play.  She is intent on moving about like an “old person” which belies the fact that she is playing a woman ten years her junior.  Eventually, these two hit their stride together.  Their partnership onstage is comforting, if not necessarily elevating.

The Gin Game is, on a larger scale, about addiction and abuse.  Because D.L.Coburn hides it in behind the mask of old age, it is easy to miss at first.  After all, these are old folks who we don’t have to take too seriously, right?  They are quaint.  They are adorable.  Or irascible.  In any case, they are no threat to us or to our thinking.  Au contraire.  Fonsia and Weller are us.  Ultimately we, if we live long enough, will be at the same threshold.  And what will we do when we get there?