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THE GIN GAME is first rate with two excellent leads now at the ALTARENA PLAYHOUSE

“It’s just a game” Fonsia reminds Weller.


Pulitzer Prize winning THE GIN GAME by, D.L. Coburn's 1976 two character play about a pair of retirement home residents who banter and bitch away the hours at a card table is now on stage at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda Ca. Directed by Sue Trigg she cast two brilliant local actors Sally Hogarty and Kip Wilson to play the grumpy and lovable seniors, Fonsia and Weller. The play first premiered on Broadway in 1977 with Mike Nichols directing Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in a production later filmed for television. E.G. Marshall and Maureen Stapleton stepped in to replace them during the run of just over a year, while Charles Durning and Julie Harris starred in a 1997 revival. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore played the roles in a 2003 TV movie. It is the perfect script for any two pro’s to take on like James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, who are playing these roles in the excellent current Broadway revival. The story is sufficiently race-blind to lend itself to a black cast, and while it's thin on subtext, the writing is less sentimental than that of Ernest Thompson's creaky “On Golden Pond”, another reflection from the same period on the approaching sadness and bittersweet acceptance of old age.

Director Sue Trigg says “It is a truly challenging multi-layered play, there is so much to uncover as we explore Weller and Fonisa's lives and relationships, both with each other and with a world that has left them very much alone as their final curtain is descending. The Gin Game is a perfect blend of humor and pathos with a sprinkling of regrets, and I am looking forward to dealing our Altarena audiences a hand of engaging and powerful theatre.” Trigg leans just right on the humor in THE GIN GAME dimming some of the more emotionally moving notes and making the shift into understanding some truths and heated emotion abrupt. But there's no denying the crowd's pleasure of watching these two first rate actors navigate the guarded isolation of their characters. The sold out audience at the Altarena Playhouse are delighted with the performances. Set Designer and APH Artistic Director Clay David’s setting is the embodiment of physical decline, gracefully lit by Courtney Johnson to show the start of an evening shadow. It depicts the back porch of a sturdy two-story retirement home, its paint peeling, its tethered doors locked shut to prevent dementia sufferers from wandering and its few modest sticks of mismatched furniture nestled alongside the clutter of the elderly unit with wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and broken appliances. Richard Jennings and Fred Di Natale created the excellent sound design and original music. Sharon Bell's costume designs kept the two comfortable in morning wear for scene one and Sunday visiting charm for scene two and the closing act.

Hogarty and Wixson carry the whole story, they take the first act by storm bonding with each other until Weller invites Fonsia to join him in a game of gin rummy. He makes no secret of his disdain for the other residents and the boring programs provided for them by the home, relishes the quiet of the porch, particularly on visitors' day. But Weller is not beyond displays of a certain old fashioned kindness and affection; when distressed, recent arrival Fonsia wanders out one afternoon he is delighted to make a new friend. She is folksy woman who makes much of her honorable past, Fonsia claims to be rusty at Gin, but she proceeds to win game after game. This rankles the grumpy Weller, and his f bombs repeatedly threaten to end the budding friendship.The play is limited in story and all dialogue and character, not much of plot. As the two reveal more about their pasts, the two seem to have a back and forth bond of the same path, the same hurts and discards.

The Gin Game sets off the two on their self discovery and Wellers poor losing skills. Coburn's play makes touching but familiar points about the ways in which the aged are cast aside, forgotten by a society with little use for them. There are also easy indications that neither character is an angel, hinting at stubbornness, selfishness and other difficulties that explain why both of them are without visitors each Sunday. The play uses the arch of the card game as subtext on how much the outcome of a life is determined by luck and how much by judgment, as well as how much give and take is required to avoid being stuck playing alone. THE GIN GAME is more alluring when its two seniors basically face off over the card table than in its treatment of larger issues. What keeps the two hours engaging is the edgy dance between Wixson and Hogarty as she gets repeatedly angered by his temper and then is coaxed back, following an apology, for a couple more hands of gin.

This Game is a must see and the two wonderful performances of Hogarty and Wixson are perfect for your spring evening at the theatre. The Altarena is a Gem of the East Bay and this marks their 78th season of first rate theatre. They return this early summer with THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, opening in May. You still have time to see THE GIN GAME, it has one final weekend and must close April 10th.

The Altarena Playhouse Presents


By Donald L. Coburn, Directed by Sue Trigg

Featuring Sally Hogarty and Kip Wixson

Through Sunday, April 10,

Friday and Saturday nights at 8, Sundays at 2 p.m.

Single tickets are $26, or $23 for students and seniors.

Altarena Playhouse is located at 1409 High St. Call 523-1553 or email; tickets at

Photo’s by Jim Norrena

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