The Gin Game is a two-person tragicomedy in two acts that uses a card game as a metaphor for life. D. L. Coburn conceived of the play first as a conflict between a man and a woman and strictly as a tragedy. He felt that the simplicity of two people and a card game could have more impact because of its concentrated format. The setting of the old age home was not conceived until later in the development of the story, and the comedy worked its way in unintentionally through the wit of the characters. Coburn used a few models from his own life for each of the characters and was inspired by the Russian poet Aleksander Pushkin's "Elegy," which speaks to the bittersweet nature of growing old. The play premiered in 1976 and was first published by Samuel French (1977); it is also available from Drama Book Specialists.
The Gin Game was Coburn's first attempt at writing a play. He happened to know a director, who had the play produced in September of 1976 by American Theatre Arts in a very small theater in Los Angeles. Variety carried a review of the play that caught the attention of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. In their subsequent production, the play was introduced to the actor Hume Cronyn, who instantly wanted to act in the play and sent it to the noted director Mike Nichols. Remarkably, on October 6, 1977, only thirteen months after its debut, The Gin Game opened on Broadway. The play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1978 and was nominated for four Tony Awards: Best Play, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director. Jessica Tandy won for her portrayal of Fonsia. The play ran for 516 performances on Broadway in its first production and then went on tour around the country with its stars, Tandy and Cronyn.
In 1997, the play had a revival on Broadway, starring Charles Durning and Julie Harris, and was nominated for a Tony for Best Revival of a Play. Harris suggested adding a dance between Weller and Fonsia, since Durning is such a wonderful dancer. At first, Coburn rejected the idea, but then he realized that a dance could bring the two characters even closer and give the audience a glimpse at how happy they might be if only they could get past their crippling faults. The dance also shows the psychological damage resulting from the physical debilitation that often comes with age. Coburn came to consider this revision essential to the play. Through the years, The Gin Game has been shown in dozens of countries around the world. Coburn has written several more plays, screenplays, and television scripts, but none has had anything like the success of The Gin Game.
Act 1, Scene 1
Seated on an unused, enclosed porch of the Bentley Home for Seniors, a seedy nursing home, Weller Martin is occupying himself with a game of solitaire. A new resident, Fonsia Dorsey, wanders out onto the porch, and the two become acquainted as they talk about what brought them to the home. Weller offers to teach Fonsia how to play gin rummy. It is visitor's day, and, as they sort their cards, they share the reasons that neither of them has visitors. Fonsia wins the game, claiming beginner's luck. As they continue to play, they talk about their failed marriages, their children, and Weller's business. When Fonsia wins more games, Weller starts to curse, and Fonsia declares that in her Methodist upbringing, her father never said a foul word. They discuss the cheesy entertainment that is constantly foisted upon the residents of the nursing home, until Fonsia wins another gin game and Weller throws down his cards in disgust.
Act 1, Scene 2
The next week, Fonsia seeks out Weller on the porch as they both try to escape another visitor's day. Weller asks for a rematch at cards, and Fonsia eagerly agrees. However, before they start to play, they talk about the peculiarities and problems of other residents in the home as well as their own loneliness and frustration with their situation. During the card playing, Fonsia denies that she is on welfare, but Weller admits to panic...
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