Star City Playhouse opens their 2018 performance season on Friday, January 26, with “Gin Game,” featuring Jane Gabrielle and Gene Marrano in what its playwright Donald Coburn describes as a “tragi-comedy in two acts.”
Playhouse owners Marlow and Karon Semones Ferguson established the Star City Playhouse almost 25 years ago, but this is the first time they have presented “Gin Game.”
“Gin Game” was Coburn’s first play. It premiered in 1976, opened on Broadway in 1977, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1978. It has been presented in theatres all around the world.
Marrano and Gabrielle play the roles of Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, two residents of a somewhat run-down “old folks home.” Both are fairly new to their circumstances and experiencing some difficulties adjusting to the many challenges of their new lifestyle.
The pair strike up an acquaintance when he talks her into playing cards to pass the time on Visitor’s Day, when neither is fortunate enough to have friends or family stopping by. She says her son and grandchildren don’t visit her because of distance. He has children he has lost touch with after a divorce at a time when the rights of the father were not so much considered by the courts.
In the beginning they seem to enjoy one another’s company and begin to share long conversations about their lives–their children, spouses, and jobs. Over time, their relationship becomes more contentious as Weller becomes increasingly crochety and disgruntled, not just from his living situation, but because Fonsia always seems to win when they play Gin. He becomes increasingly frustrated, bitter, and angry while she becomes increasingly confident. Their conversations turn into confrontations; his sarcastic humor becomes more biting.
This is Marrano’s first leading role. He initially appeared with Star City in their opening production in Vinton in February 2017 in “Shakespeare in Love.” He followed that performance with roles in “The Nerd” and “Enemy of the People.” He is well-known throughout the region as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and editor, currently anchor and reporter for WFIR.
Marrano says he experienced a “middle-age creative crisis” a few years ago and took up acting. He has appeared in plays with Attic Productions, Showtimers, and Off the Rails. The Fergusons recruited him for their resident company.
Gabrielle also performed in “Shakespeare in Love” and recently in “Bridal Party” for Star City in Vinton, and previously in other Star City productions in Roanoke. She is a visual artist/poet/singer-songwriter. Marlow Ferguson told her years ago that he was going to make her an actor and now she is a member of the Star City Playhouse resident company.
The Fergusons note that Gabrielle and Marrano have great chemistry together in their roles in “Gin Game.”
Their characters are engaging, leading the audience to ponder their own mortality and looming life decisions.
Quite a few famous couples have appeared in the roles, including Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore (in the TV version), and James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, to name a few.
Coburn said that in his mind, the play was written as a tragedy–with some funny moments–as he was “deadly serious about the intense focus I was bringing to bear on two people who are nearing the end of their lives with many essential areas unexamined and never confronted. It is the gin game, gently at first, then as ferocious obsession, that draws both characters into a virtual death-spiral of revelation that reaches to the core of their beings.”
To Coburn, the card game became a metaphor for life.
The play is very timely and engaging for audiences today as it deals with challenges of aging now facing the Baby Boomer generation—the aging process catching up with the aging. But it is not just of interest to the elderly, but connects with all adults.
The performance, through both humor and angst, exposes the physical, financial, and social constraints of getting older–losing independence, loneliness, remaining connected to children and grandchildren busy with lives of their own without being a burden, long-term care concerns, preserving dwindling assets, dealing with chronic or sudden illness which drains resources, how to occupy leisure time, options for living situations, and a perceived lack of control over one’s own life.
Fonsia says she has become “sick of watching TV” and of “adults whose social life has become going to funerals,” with “conversations focused on their ailments and funeral planning.” She would have preferred to move into the Presbyterian home where she had friends, but that facility forced residents to “give up all their money.”
While Fonsia suffers from chronic diabetes, Weller bemoans “an advanced case of old age” which has an “unprecedented mortality rate. If you live long enough, you end up in a place like this.” He himself landed there after losing his life savings in a health crisis, expressing the sentiment that “we lived too long.”
He has grown weary of residents “who talk so much that you appreciate the ones who don’t talk.”
Both bemoan “having to fit all your worldly belongings into one small room” at the nursing home, and complain about the monotonous menu with its seemingly unending supply of the detestable stewed tomatoes.
The nursing home entertainment activities have become just an irritation to both with continual church choirs and magicians stopping by to perform and endless dance classes offered. Weller, now walking with the assistance of a cane, reminisces about the times when he “could dance all night.”
Karon Semones Ferguson has once again done a wonderful job with costuming and set design. The play is set in a rather dilapidated nursing home in the mid-1960’s with an ancient wheelchair, rumored to have been rescued from an asylum, and the vintage card table of the times.
Gabrielle, in her role as Fonsia, seamlessly changes costumes innumerable times and consistently brings out her “purse hanger” hook when she plays Gin.
Diane Heard who frequently appears in Star City productions, is stage manager for “Gin Game.”
The production in two acts runs about 90 minutes with one intermission.
The Fergusons have been determined, throughout their history in theatre, to present to audiences a wealth of entertaining, but also thought-provoking plays. Their focus has been on choosing plays of great distinction, but perhaps not great name recognition for audiences.
“This is what we do,” said Marlow Ferguson “We will choose a play not because it’s been done to death but because it will stretch our actors’ craft and, who knows, you might find a new favorite. It’s educating the public.”
During their first season in Vinton, the Fergusons included a mini-production of Shakespearean sonnets with “Shakespeare in Love,” and full-length productions of the comedies “The Nerd,” “Bus Stop,” and “Second Man,” along with the drama “The Enemy of the People.” They also treated audiences to free lunchtime theatre with three one-act play productions in December and January.
“Gin Game” is scheduled for January 26 through February 11 on Fridays at 7 p.m. with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
General admission is $12; tickets for seniors and students are $8. Reservations can be made by calling 540-366-1446.
Star City Playhouse is located at 107 South Pollard Street just across from the former Vinton Motors, where parking is available. There is also parking behind the theater at the Farmers’ Market, at Vinton Baptist, and throughout the downtown area