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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

The Jungle Theater The Gin Game

The Gin Game
Wendy Lehr and Bain Boehlke
Sometimes theater can be transcendent; sometimes it can illustrate deep lessons about life. And sometimes it is just about the sheer thrill of watching performers at the top of their games. So, while D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game offers a fine, funny and even insightful script, it's no mystery who the stars of the Jungle Theater production are: longtime Twin Cities' performers Bain Boehlke and Wendy Lehr.

Set in a crumbling old folks home, The Gin Game follows two characters, Fonsia and Weller, who bond over a game of cards. The two are lonely in the world, and it becomes clear why. There is a darkness that sits in the heart of each of them, a darkness that only comes out as Fonsia—who professes to have never played the game—wins hand after hand.

Boehlke, also the show's director and designer (and Jungle founder), and Lehr have shared the stage in numerous productions since the 1960s. Those years together on the boards translate into rare chemistry in The Gin Game. It's not just a matter of the two slipping into their characters; they slip just as easily into the ever-evolving relationship between the two.

Part of the show's complexity—and a reason it won the Pulitzer Prize—is shifting truth behind the characters. Trapped in the home and without friends, the two gravitate to each other. Yet it is clear at the outset that they come from different worlds, though both have definitely been toughened by bad relationships in the deep past. They find a spark in each other that keeps drawing them together. It can be seen in the second scene, when the two have dressed up for their Sunday game, and it comes through each time they meet, even though the situation between them has grown worse and worse.

Both actors play a balancing act here, never letting too much out at one time, but letting us see—via subtle shifts in voice or body language—that more is up here than a "friendly" game of gin. Even as the anger boils over, there is still control. While Boehlke's Weller explodes in a rage at his constant losing, he is also able to manipulate Fonsia and continue their relationship. Lehr's Fonsia, by the same token, has obviously spent her life playing subtle games with those around her. Now, near the end of their lives, each has met their respective match.

Much of the fun in The Gin Game is watching these two spar through their scenes, taking advantage wherever and whenever they can. All of it is played out on Boehlke's lovely decrepit set, one that can be read as more than just a grungy sun porch of a lesser retirement home, but a space as tired and broken as the characters on stage.

The Gin Game runs through June 29 at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis. For tickets, call 612-822-7063 or visit www.jungletheater.org.


Photo © Michal Daniel, 2008


- Ed Huyck



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