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On Theater: A riveting ‘Gin Game’ in Newport

On Theater: A riveting ‘Gin Game’ in Newport
Senior center co-residents Fonsia (Harriet Whitmyer) and Weller (Rick Kopps) clash and bond over a game of gin rummy. The Newport Theatre Arts Center’s rendition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play runs through Feb. 17. (Photo courtesy of Newport Theatre Arts Center)

Two old folks playing gin rummy in a dilapidated rest home.

Doesn’t quite sound like a recipe for compelling drama, but hand it to a pair of living legends like Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy and you’ve got a play that’s worthy of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

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That was over 40 years ago, and D.L. Coburn's “The Gin Game” hasn’t lost its visceral bite, as evidenced by its superlative production at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, where two local community theater veterans deal out some heavy drama blended with richly comedic seasoning.

Weller (Rick Kopps) and Fonsia (Harriet Whitmyer) share the “game room” of the nursing home and have much in common. Both are long-divorced souls who have become estranged from their families. They begin a tenuous relationship over the card table, which becomes an emotional battlefield.

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His character is a self-styled card shark while hers is more of a novice, yet she wins repeatedly, driving him further and further off the rails. Director Kathy Paladino has elicited two excellent performances and has enriched the story with videos depicting the pitiful existence at the facility.

Whitmyer beautifully captures the steely stubbornness of her role, deftly playing her hand to rattle her opponent’s cage before zeroing in for the kill. She also poignantly recounts Fonsia’s unfulfilled personal life, that of an elderly woman abandoned by the son she adored.

Kopps, whose character’s backstory is similar, adopts a superior, overarching attitude, jacking up the emotional temperature with each turn of the cards. He may be a bit young for the part, but he skillfully projects an old man’s rage and insecurity.

Playwright Coburn opened a few tender spaces in his plot where Weller and Fonsia might find common ground, such as their brief dance, and the Newport actors fill them nicely. These provide needed contrast while helping to flesh out the characters.

Andrew Otero's setting is as bare-bones as they come — a storeroom with a card table — emphasizing the futility of both the home and its occupants. Jackson Halphide and Brian Page contribute effective lighting and sound designs, respectively.

“The Gin Game” is a masterful character study which should resonate with a significant portion of its audience in this splendid revival at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

Tom Titus reviews local theater.

IF YOU GO

What: “The Gin Game”

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. until Feb. 17

Cost: $20

Information: (949) 631-0288, ntaconline.com

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