If Sartre was on to something when he said that hell was other people, D.L. Coburn hones a finer edge in his Pulitzer Prize winner: "Yes, in the roles we create for them." The 1977 premiere cast Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, two loveless seniors stuck in a decrepit nursing home, whose meeting offers some slim chance of respite from loneliness and perhaps at love. But as a game of cards progresses, each can't help but display the vicious torques of character that brought them to this grim place, despite living family, and recreate their same fates with each other.
Director Phyllis Frelich, from casting necessity, rewrote the DWT version for herself as Weller, with Freda Norman as Fonsia, drawn to each other as the only two deaf patients. Cal Bartlett and Maureen Davis—nicely placed as nursing aides—are their respective speaking voices in this signed production, Bartlett's gravely baritone a necessary compromise. Robert Steinberg's marvelous set design conveys neglect and decay with labor-of-love details from the grimy walls to the frayed duct tape on the card table and the unwatered indoor plant amid a pile of its own dead leaves.
This was my first DWP performance, and I can only report what it was like as a first-time member of the secondary, hearing audience. I watched this production just after reading the play, which gave me goose bumps. The grand emotions of rage, shame, or pain come through loud and clear, and Norman is a special delight to watch. But nuanced emotions are rendered in a different language with subtleties beyond this non-signer's grasp, or pantomimed with a new spin: When Weller vows to control his temper, it's usually played with an internal tension resolving to keep silent what he considers his deserved anger; how different it is when Weller comically clops herself repeatedly on the head self-punitively to show the sincerity of her promise. During one furious verbal exchange, I couldn't watch Norman but had to turn to Davis—not just a voice but also an actress—to have the words fit the facial expression. Otherwise, it's like a foreign movie with subtitles twice removed; even perfect phrasing can't fit the signed enunciation or gestures. This is as it should be, but it is demanding.
The performances are all of a very high order, but Frelich's Weller is often too cheerful or syrupy, especially her broad smile. Weller's cynicism doesn't come easily to her, and the cruelty of both characters taxes the resources of these actresses. Unfortunately, muffling the cruelty leads to a bungled finale. Weller takes pride in being a master of gin but has lost every single game to the seeming amateur, Fonsia. Weller is driven to infantile outbursts of rage that also reveal Fonsia's spiteful nature that has driven her husband and her son from her. "Vindictive! That's what you are," says Weller (in print), who wants one more chance to win. But "vindictive" here becomes "vicious," eliminating plotting to get even. The denouement (in text) comes when Fonsia has gin, but knows that her final discard card is what Weller—muttering "one card"—needs to go gin and win. In a moment made for pure visuals, Fonsia displays her final discard as though she's simply about to put it in Weller's grasp, but as Weller eagerly reaches for it she declares gin—a final, calculated, crushing humiliation that drives Weller away with the same finality as her family. This doesn't happen here, but it should: it's the nail that holds the painting on the wall.
"The Gin Game," presented by and at Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Nov. 11-Dec. 17. $15-20. (818) 762-2773; (818) 762-2782 (TTY).