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Abandoned hearts

Two actors subtly pull you in at the SLO Little Theatre

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I do not ask to die, I crave more life.” The line from a Pushkin poem echoes in the dark, opening The Gin Game. Then, Elvis?

Director John Pillow is a walking résumé and contradiction. I’m expecting a burly man, but what I get is a tiny, middle-aged hipster bedecked in denim. He’s in touch with the fishing and hunting culture through working at Four Season’s Outfitters by day, and he appreciates that.

YOU WON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT :  There’s cookies and punch during a much-needed breather at intermission. Pictured are Tom Ammon, director John Pillow, and Rae Stone. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • YOU WON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT : There’s cookies and punch during a much-needed breather at intermission. Pictured are Tom Ammon, director John Pillow, and Rae Stone.

The SLO triple threat (he’s a musician as well) started his acting career at PCPA in 1976 and transitioned into directing only recently. The Gin Game is his first directorial foray, and a natural progression, he says, for actors. A veteran of several meaty productions, the virgin director understands the subtleties of this play and of the highly realistic script.

“Because it is so actor dependent,” Pillow explained, “they paint the picture, and I frame it for them.”

Up-and-coming set designer Natalie Khuen dazzles with her single set that beckons with its worn blue siding, aged computer, and requisite junk you’d find around the elderly. A Star Wars game sits on a shelf, possibly an homage to the year The Gin Game premiered in New York in 1977 (with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy). Finally, there’s the eye-catching whimsical owl pillow.

Director Pillow claims there’s minimal theatricality in The Gin Game.

You be the judge.

Tom Ammon is the frowsy Weller, a cigar perched between his lips. You hear Ammon before you see him, dealing a deck of cards. A dingy white T-shirt hangs off of him like his own pale, decades-old skin. A cane becomes a third arm.

The crowd enjoys Weller’s first moments, laughing hard at everything from the dialogue to the gestures.

Emmy winner Rae Stone is Fonsia head to toe, as she hobbles, stilted by edematous legs, curlers under a doo rag, housedress, and a perfect slouch.

If you go to see this show, you won’t be walking into the SLO Little Theatre this weekend, or next. You will be traveling to middle America, will settle into your front row seat and into the lives of Fonsia and Weller at an old folks home.

“It’s getting darker, the storm is getting closer,” Weller says.

That storm is a slice of life, just two weeks in the world of these acquaintances, with pop music sprinkled throughout: The Beatles. The Who. Elvis. Pillow says it’s the music the characters grew up listening to, music of his choosing, and it’s perfectly placed to ease tense moments and add bursts of energy under pathetic circumstances. It’s a brush of the cheek with humanity, with humor, charm, forming a story that seems conspicuous, but isn’t.

Over gin lessons, the two get to know one another. Ammon is transcendent, crossing over to that place where actors go when they stop acting altogether.

A twee Fonsia is a true match for Weller as she alludes to a troubled past with men, and to a son and a sister she never sees. She plucks a card from between her lips, wipes it on her housedress, then slips it into her hand, and drives Weller mad. There is a strong reaction from the audience: claps, oohs, and ahs, as if it were a Vaudeville show.

Fonsia fiddles with a fern, contemplating her own problems and, at the same time, wondering why Weller acts the way he does. The scene lays a foundation. It’s a picture window into dementia, anger, and loneliness framing its sad state of being.

The duo is equally miserable in their current living conditions. “Take our medicine,” the nurse implores to Fonsia.

In the second act, they bond and play another hand. She’s a crackerjack gin player. No money, no family, no one to love or to love them. In their words, they’ve “lived too long.” Although it’s not what is spoken, it’s the underlying things that haunt the performance. Gin is a slight reprieve.

- CRAZY. VULGAR. SINNER. HOPELESS. NAG.: - The Gin Game shows at 2 and 8 p.m. on weekends. This Pulitzer Prize-winning play takes the stage through May 1 at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre at 888 Morro St. in SLO. Tickets cost $15 to $23. Info: 786-2440 or slolittletheatre.org. -
  • CRAZY. VULGAR. SINNER. HOPELESS. NAG.: The Gin Game shows at 2 and 8 p.m. on weekends. This Pulitzer Prize-winning play takes the stage through May 1 at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre at 888 Morro St. in SLO. Tickets cost $15 to $23. Info: 786-2440 or slolittletheatre.org.

Weller is losing, and he doesn’t like it.

He describes another private hell: his spells. “Unreal, distorted, taking on a dreamlike quality.” His face shows truth and death.

Fonsia’s sadness deepens, yet she’s calm as Weller’s “awesome temper” leads him galley-west. The two enjoy each other’s company, even when hating their peers—and while knowing the place they live is a holding pen for the dying, “intellectually and emotionally.”

Weller’s temper gets worse with every gin bout, but Fonsia succumbs and plays again, even though his aggression reigns supreme, designating her a bitch, insulting her personal life, and calling her bluff.

Weller’s yellow-dog moments fill his eyes with haze and knock sharply on the door of violence. Lightning and thunder soundtrack a profound daymare.

A delectable, witty, breathless surprise, the gin game in The Gin Game is the MacGuffin. It’s a marvelous ride from start to finish.

Fonsia has won every match.

It’s not the enigmas that swell up on the card table. It’s just life, the force of its nature, a slow decline into truth and the finality of it all with no resolve. A conclusion with no conclusion—that is the mesmerizing result of The Gin Game, as Weller beats the table and slumps off stage, so low you cannot see his head. 

Calendar Editor Christy Heron prays she never gets old. Give her some Botox at cheron@newtimesslo.com.

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