Altarena’s Latest Play Aims High, Reaches Far

Jim Norrena, ACT OUT photography Sally Hogarty (foreground) and Kip Wixson are Fonsia and Weller, two seniors who turn to gin rummy to pass the time, in the current play at Altarena Playhouse. Don’t miss the Alameda Sun’s performance as the hapless local newspaper on the table.

Cue the fireworks and dancing boys: I have an announcement. The Gin Game is the best show I have ever seen at Altarena, in 15 years of reviewing. Top notch, stellar, outstanding: What else can I say? I’m not given to superlatives in reviews, especially because I’ve seen so much mediocre theatre since I started reviewing in the Bay Area in 1992. But this. The Gin Game: Go see it.

There are no ninja, vampires or time-travelers. The two actors, who comprise the entire cast, are older, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t drama, action, violence, romance and comedy. 

In this Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by Donald L. Coburn, senior citizens Weller and Fonsia are both dismayed to find themselves in a third-rate nursing home. The story takes place on the patio of the home, with voices heard from offstage, but Sally Hogarty and Kip Wixson carry the entire show. They begin griping to each other and soon Weller invites Fonsia to join him in a game of gin rummy. 

Passing the time leads to friendship and nascent romance, coupled with competition that is by turns fierce and frustrating. The pressure of the game — “It’s just a game,” Fonsia reminds Weller — leads to inadvertent revelations about their younger selves. Weller is prickly and hates to lose; Fonsia is prim and seems cursed with good luck. As tempers flare, they each say things they shouldn’t have, that they wish they hadn’t said — and, of course, it’s too late.

Hogarty and Wixson are excellent in their roles. The play is all dialogue and all character — no plot to speak of, and certainly no dramatic setting or stage effects. As the characters reveal more about themselves, about the past, the other echoes back what has been said, in ways that unveil far more than they had anticipated, in ways that cut, revealing deep wounds from the past. 

Director Sue Trigg, whose efforts have excelled many times at Altarena, has drawn deeply from Hogarty and Wixson, shaping this dialog-heavy play into a swift-flying evening with belly laughs, gasps of awe and an ending that both shocks and lingers long after the lights come up. 

There aren’t many dates left; get your tickets while you can.

The show runs through Sunday, April 10, with performances Friday and Saturday nights at 8, Sundays at 2 p.m.  Single tickets are $26, or $23 for students and seniors. Altarena Playhouse is located at 1409 High St. Call 523-1553 or email boxoffice@altarena.org; the website is www.altarena.org.

 

Julia Park Tracey is a longtime theater-goer, journalist, blogger and author; she is Alameda’s Poet Laureate. Find her at Twitter@juliaparktracey and Facebook/juliaparktraceyauthor.