While walking down Playhouse Square, one may note a giant billboard of a beatific Julie Harris, lovingly wrapping her arms around a teddy-bearish Charles Durning. You might think they were touting some generic theatrical peach pie, such as Back to Golden Pond or Ma and Pa on Broadway. This is anything but truth in advertising. The "game" these golden agers pursue in The Gin Game (at the Palace Theatre through November 15) is as dangerous as any encounter between King Kong and Godzilla.
It's set on the veranda of a seedy, genteel nursing home. Lightning flashes; the evergreen in the yard apprehensively sways between the simultaneous gales going on inside and outside. An offstage choir pollutes the air with treacly hymns. Center stage, a hulky seersuckered behemoth in the midst of a conniption commences to pummel a game table with his metal cane while hurling the debris of a card game across the room. He evokes the primeval fury on an enraged god confronting a bitch from hell. Across the porch is his gaunt gin nemesis, who could have inspired one of Grant Wood's "Daughters of the American Revolution." She clutches her handbag as a shield against the fury her seemingly supernatural luck in cards and punishing tongue has wrought.
An evening that started as a flyweight, almost Neil Simonish character comedy of two lonely nursing home denizens discovering camaraderie through gin has skillfully escalated into a homespun Gstterdämmerung.
D.L. Coburn's twenty-year-old Pulitzer Prize play is a mercurial work. Written as a star vehicle for husband/wife acting team Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, it admirably functions on a number of levels: as a platform for a past-fifty acting couple to show off their range; as a penetrating expose of the indignities of old age; and as a detailed study of character, as layers of defenses, rationalizations, and mendacity are stripped away from the two card players until they are reduced to snarling savages. Above all it is a superb allegory, taking two characters whose pride, family, income, and careers have fallen by the wayside. Consequently, the game of gin has become emblematic of their last battle in life.
As the emotional stakes build through the ever more intense games, the veneers of the likable churchwoman and the hale and hearty charmer crumble. It's revealed that the tragedies of their lives--tragedies they attribute to ill fortune--are in truth due to their own maliciousness and incompetence. As the woman Fonsia becomes victor of every game and is revealed to be the archetypal castrating mother, so the man Weller is seen as the failed, humiliated warrior who cannot face up to his own self-inflicted inadequacies. This stripping away of illusions and defenses results in near death for one and solitary confinement for the other.
Coburn's powerhouse little two-character play is well on its way to passing the test of time. Twenty years later, with two very different stars inhabiting it, the play supplely stretches to accommodate a whole different range of colors. Cronyn and Tandy were, respectively, smaller and waspier. Cronyn's angry gin player was a little blowfish, puffing himself up with anger and indignation to hide a hollow little man. No one believed for a second that he was capable of doing bodily harm to his card-playing nemesis. Tandy had the brittle edge of fine porcelain. Julie Harris, on the other hand, has the open-voice persona of the prairie; underneath the facade of the straitlaced old woman still lurks the yearning, love-starved Frankie of Member of the Wedding. It is impossible to dislike her, even at her most vindictive, as when she condemns the male population and brags of "fixing the wagon" of her alienated son and ex-husband.
Charles Durning, unlike the diminutive, ferret-like Cronyn, is a veritable mountain of a man. Durning gave one of the great performances of the century as Tennessee Williams' "Big Daddy" in a superb revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He cannot help but exude a titanic life force. When he bellows and threatens, it's easy to understand why Harris is trembling. What originally was perceived as a battle between two evenly matched clawing and pecking opponents in a cerebral rooster/hen barnyard squabble takes on an ultimately more dangerous aspect in this production. By their final confrontation, as Harris deals the cards with a defiant finger in the air, triumphantly croaking out that final, taunting "Gin!" the audience feels as if it has witnessed a terrifying encounter in the bullring.
Director Charles Nelson Reilly has had to struggle like Ulysses, stringing his crossbow to fit this intimate show into the gargantuan proportions of the Palace and other nationwide theaters it is fated to play. Even with set designer James Noone's National Geographic vistas in the background and gracious fading porch in the foreground, Durning and Harris look like marbles when viewed from less than ideal seats. It's a testament to their luminosity that they survive these gigantic spaces and doubly grotesque miking. They are two of the rare few who come close to deserving the obligatory standing ovation that Cleveland audiences give to everything above hula-dancing protozoa.