"The Gin Game" is known for being a sturdy stage vehicle to showcase two veteran actors "of a certain age." And that reputation holds true for Drury Lane Theatre's solid take on D.L. Coburn's 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama starring Paula Scrofano and John Reeger.
The longtime Chicago-area actors did not pressure Drury Lane to stage "The Gin Game" as a vanity project. It was the Oakbrook Terrace theater that doggedly pursued the husband-and-wife team to step away from semi-retirement. So "The Gin Game" becomes quite a milestone as the 30th Drury Lane production to feature Reeger and Scrofano either separately or together.
Set in the outdoor courtyard of a slightly rundown "urban home for the aged" (a depressingly realistic set by designer Katherine Ross), "The Gin Game" focuses on the retirees Weller Martin (Reeger) and Fonsia Dorsey (Scrofano). The two are unhappy about their lonely situations, but they soon form a prickly friendship over games of gin rummy.
Much of the play's humor comes from how unevenly matched Martin and Dorsey are as competitors, and both Reeger and Scrofano play up the exasperated inequities to provoke gales of laughter from the audience. Yet the two also deliver the dramatic goods when their card battles threaten to detonate tempers, and snap judgments imperil this fragile new friendship as a whole.
Jeff Award-winning actor/director Ross Lehman was wise not to stage "The Gin Game" as a period piece, since Coburn's script is surprisingly timely. It touches on high health care costs and near-debilitating medical catastrophes.
"The Gin Game" is also timeless, as Scrofano and Reeger's characters pile on their resentments of being infantilized by care workers and sharing suspicions of their possessions being pilfered.
Lehman's scene work with his performers is very fine-tuned, with Scrofano proving particularly effective with displays of inner emotional turmoil. Lehman's decision to incorporate Mike Tutaj's video projections of nursing home life in between scenes is arguably overkill, though it does help paint a bleak picture of Martin and Dorsey's living situation.
Scrofano and Reeger may not have the celebrity standing of previous Broadway couplings of "The Gin Game" that include Hume Cronyn with Jessica Tandy (1977), Julie Harris with Charles Durning (1997) and James Earl Jones with Cicely Tyson (2015). But for longtime Chicago theater fans familiar with Reeger and Scrofano's distinguished local careers, "The Gin Game" at Drury Lane is an admirable twilight chapter for everyone to be proud of.