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Deaf West Deals a New and Winning 'Gin' Hand

November 17, 2000|PHILIP BRANDES

The seriocomic sparring between two nursing-home residents in D.L. Coburn'soft-revived "The Gin Game" trumps expectations with a pair of wild cards in Phyllis Frelich's poignant staging for Deaf West Theatre.

First, in keeping with the company's mission to extend familiar stage plays to embrace signing as well as speaking actors, Frelich re-envisions Coburn's elderly card players as the only hearing-impaired occupants of an impersonal state-run institution. It's a dealer's choice that elegantly furthers the text, introducing a special bond that draws the pair together at the outset.

The bigger surprise is in casting the leads with two women. Weller Martin, the hot-tempered loner who lures shy new arrival Fonsia Dorsey into an ongoing gin rummy match, was conceived for a male and has traditionally been portrayed as such. That was the initial intent of this production as well, until the originally cast actor dropped out too far into the rehearsal process to recruit a replacement. In an inspired solution, Frelich, who appeared in the original production of "The Gin Game" that inaugurated Deaf West Theatre a decade ago, stepped in.

The relationship between Weller and Fonsia (Freda Norman) is not a particularly romantic one and easily weathers the gender change and its inevitable shifts in dynamics. The principal challenge is on Frelich to convincingly evoke Weller's typically masculine aggression, which she handles with aplomb. Her alternate feuding and rapprochement with Norman's Fonsia resonates with a heartfelt connection, further deepened by the expressiveness of their signing.

The perfectly paced voice accompaniment is supplied by Cal Bartlett (for Weller) and Maureen Davis (for Fonsia), who ingeniously appear as orderlies and are discreetly woven into the staging. Robert Steinberg's notably detailed patio set ensures production values are up to the high performance standards.

*

* "The Gin Game," Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays, Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Dec. 17. $20. (818) 762-2773; TTY: (818) 762-2782. Running time: 2 hours.

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