Over and over again the little old lady at the card table who claims never to have played the game before puts down her cards with the triumphant claim "gin!" in the Little Theatre of Alexandria's charming production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play "The Gin Game."
The little old lady is really Margaret Bush, the actress who looked so fetching as one of the two wives in that theater's production of the bigamy comedy "Run for Your Wife" just five months ago, so you know it is a trick of costumes, wig and makeup that you are watching. That may be so, but it is her skill as an actress that turns the costume and wig into a living, breathing, thinking old lady with spirit.
Bush gently transitions from what might well be a stereotype of an old lady into a much richer, gentler and deeper character as the short evening proceeds. By the end, just an hour and 45 minutes later, she has engaged not only your heart but your mind with a performance that captures the complexity of the last stages of life with all its pride and sorrows.
The gentleman she continually beats at gin is played with less subtlety by Paul Danaceau. His part requires more attention to nuances because it is a more complex personality than that of the woman Bush plays. Here is a man who had been a great success in business who has been reduced to residency in a welfare home for the aged struggling to maintain his dignity while railing at his fortunes. Danaceau sacrifices some of that complexity for the sake of laughs.
The concentration on the humor in this funny/sad play seems to be the choice of director Roland Branford Gomez. His approach emphasizes the warm humor in this portrayal of "the golden years" over the sadness that should be felt over the plight of these two oldsters who turn to each other for company since neither expects any visits from family or old friends.
That sunny feel even carries over into the set and lighting designs of John Downing, Bill Glikbarg and Ken and Patti Crowley. They create an image of the home where these two oldsters find themselves that is closer to a well maintained assisted living facility than to the ill-maintained, under-financed "poor house" called for in the script.
That script has a long tradition of rewarding fine acting. When it opened on Broadway in 1977 it earned a Tony Award for Jessica Tandy and a Tony nomination for her husband, Hume Cronyn. Twenty years later Julie Harris was nominated for a Tony in the revival which then toured, including a stop at the Kennedy Center where both she and Charles Durning earned Helen Hayes Award nominations.
The overall impact of this production of the show is touching and charming both because of the strength of the material and the grace of Bush's work.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.