■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
It is little wonder that actors line up to audition when Peggy McQuown directs a play. A long time part of the Ramona Hillside Players, she is the crème de la crème of directors, and she’s hit the ball far over the center field fence this time.
“The Gin Game” won a Pulitzer Prize for D. L. Coburn in 1978 and has been produced from Broadway (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy owned it for years) to Hollywood and into the hinterlands with successful runs across the country. I saw Cronyn and Tandy perform it on Broadway. They were husband and wife in real life and their gin game battles were not far from the daily arguments between couples who have stayed too long at the circus, and with the kids long gone, are forced to face their own demons and fears of loneliness.
Allen Purchis as Weller Martin, and Kathleen Waller, playing the shy, retiring Fonsia Dorsey, do the play as much justice as did the two Broadway stars.
Fonsia and Weller, once proud and monied, have fallen on hard times and meet on the front porch of a third-rate nursing home to live among all sorts of society’s misfit seniors, who are homeless and of no further use to society.
One is reminded of the way Hollywood has treated aging actors, especially aging women (and sometimes men, too) when they are no longer box office money investments. Does fiction parallel life or is it the other way around?
Weller, a one-time businessman who was cleaned out by unscrupulous partners, presents himself to Fonsia as a man with some means, while she, on the other hand, was divorced when her only son was quite young. For years she slaved at jobs she probably didn’t enjoy in order to raise the boy as a single mother, having never remarried. She has a sister who never visits. Fonsia claims that her son lives in Denver, miles and miles away, however both live nearby, but have discarded her as part of their past. She claims to have some money stashed away, but shoved a bit too far in an argument with Weller, she reveals that in spite of her denials, she has been sent to the nursing home as a ward of welfare.
Both she and Weller feel they are socially in a better category than the other residents in the home.
The tool that operates the script and finally unravels their facade is a gin game that Weller cons Fonsia into against her wishes. She has never played the game and has no desire to learn. However, since they find themselves isolated from the rest of the residents at the nursing home, she sits down to play the game, merely to satisfy a fellow inmate, as it may be.
From the first countdown of one, one, two, two, through “eleven for you,” as Weller deals the cards, you know that this is going to be more than a card game. Fonsia gins on him and he calls it “beginners luck.” He assures her she will not win again, but she does – again and again – which finally sends Weller into a fit of rage and exposes an anger that could easily turn to violence when he overturns the card table. Fonsia is so frightened she swears never to play with him again, but like the moth to the flame, she returns more than once to the same end.
The problem is, however, they become so entangled with each other due to their loneliness that eventually they both erupt like Mount Vesuvius and spill their guts to one another.
We come to understand that Weller is broke and was sent to the nursing home by welfare, which he despises and Fonsia is forced to admit that her son has abandoned her, that she hates him, her former husband and her sister with equal venom.
It boils down to what happens to many seniors in our society. When they have lost all their family and become too old, however healthy, to find employment, they are put on the closet shelf like damaged toys, and when they die there is hardly a two-line obituary.
Weller clings, like a dying man to a water-logged raft that is rapidly sinking, to what few worldly things he possesses, along with the scrap of dignity that remains.
At one point well past the first act, Weller, in an attempt to show that he is still a man and she is only a woman, slurs her to such a point that she physically and verbally attacks him with the vengeance of a woman who has a long hidden vengeance of all men due to being tossed onto the ash heap by sibling, husband and offspring.
By the end of the play they both realize that anger and bitterness only hurt the person who expresses it and that no matter how old and forgotten you are, one real friend is more valuable than a house full of phonies.
I was reminded of the last line in a Willie Nelson song, “we’ll once again stroll side by side…”
Staging by Whitney D’Agostino was simple and true to the story as was lighting and sound, overseen by Jessica Ward.
The final performance was last Sunday and if you missed it, shame on you. I attended on opening night and there were too many empty seats. Once again, people complain about nothing to do in the San Jacinto Valley. I’ve never seen a bad performance by the Ramona Hillside Players in the 34 years I’ve been a resident here. Maybe if those complainers gave up politics on the cable channels for a spell, they might discover something far more interesting in the theatre.
Keep your eyes peeled for coming attractions because the new season of theatre is upon us. I understand that “Night Watch” just finished casting and performances for this thriller will start Sept. 29 through Oct. 8. And if being on stage is your thing, Ramona Hillside Players is holding auditions for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” on Oct. 2-3. Just sayin’.