Sometimes an idea, or a disease, is described long before it gets a name.
"Mansplaining," a term credited to writer Rebecca Solnit from an essay she wrote in 2008, is all about men trying to clear up things for women, even though the latter may be the greater expert on the matter. Solnit could have used Donald L. Coburn's 1976 play, "The Gin Game," as an example.
The problematic two-hander opened over the weekend in a sharp production by five-year-old Sidekick Theatre at the spiffy 440-seat Ives Auditorium in Bloomington. It's a little play in a big space.
The comedic drama is set in a retirement home where self-styled gin-rummy master Weller Martin (Raye Birk) takes it upon himself to instruct new resident Fonsia Dorsey (Candace Barrett Birk) on how the game is played. She, of course, does not need his advice. Repeatedly, and with an understatement that suggests she's fearful of blowback from his fragile ego, Fonsia cleans his clock.
Coburn's first and best-known play, "Gin Game" won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for drama. That jury made a mistake. This is a slight work with awkward gender relations and throwback views. It often feels like a sociological document more than a work of great art.
Its popularity has to do with the small, economical cast and the starry acting pairs who have inhabited Fonsia and Weller on Broadway, especially Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn (1977-78) and Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones (2015-16).
The Birks, a real-life married couple who have depicted many roles at the Guthrie Theater over the decades, add their name to this illustrious list.
Directed without fuss by Tim Stolz, the actors project the hunger of lonesome characters who come to rely on each other as stand-ins for family members who never visit. The Birks have magnetic push-pull chemistry. They also have strong craft, and are expert at keeping you guessing about their characters. Weller and Fonsia are constructed without judgment, giving the characters as much sympathy as the actors can muster. But they can only do so much.
Weller has a volcanic temper, which Birk shows in shocking moments when he's not being a charmer. His Weller keeps assuring Fonsia that he's not an abuser, even though he overturns a table or breaks his cane when he loses. Red flags abound for Fonsia. You want to tell her, "run, girl, run."
But then Weller keeps promising that "this will be the last one" — he's talking about gin games, not abuse — so Fonsia stays.
Barrett Birk's Fonsia also has dark secrets that haunt her soul. The performance is well contained — until it's not, giving us a sense of the character's constraints and fears.
These broken, not-quite-decrepit loners are bound by dysfunction in "Gin Game." It's a formula that fuels so much drama, including the oeuvre of Tennessee Williams.
Coburn's writing may not be a strong as Williams', but the Birks' performances are certainly commendable.
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