A comedic drama about the good, the bad and the ugly of getting older will bring together two lifelong friends at the Whitaker Black Box Theater June 20-23.
“The Gin Game,” written by Donald L. Coburn, will be guest directed by Charles Floyd Johnson, best known for his work on “The Rockford Files,” “Magnum PI,” “JAG” and “NCIS.” He has also been friends with Mical Whitaker, who plays Weller Martin in the production, for six decades.
Whitaker is known in Statesboro for his acting and directorial efforts, as well as his time teaching at Georgia Southern University. He is joined in “The Gin Game” by another local favorite, Carol Thompson, who will take on the role of Fonsia Dorsey. The duo is known most recently for their portrayal of Hoke and Miss Daisy in “Driving Miss Daisy.”
“The Gin Game” won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has been performed by such theater greats as Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Charles Durning and Julie Harris, and Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. There was also a television version with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. The premise of the story is that Weller and Fonsia are two elderly residents at a less-than-stellar nursing home. Neither has any visitors, and they strike up an unlikely friendship over a game of gin rummy.
The conversations between the two seniors over their card games move up and down throughout the stories of their lives like stitches being removed from a healing wound: there is relief, there is pain and, at times, both anger and tenderness in equal measure.
Thompson and Whitaker have developed what they call a wonderful working relationship over the years, as well as a treasured friendship.
“I knew her over the years, but then we worked on (Driving Miss Daisy) together and you’re finishing up the show and it’s like, I want to do something else with her,” Whitaker said, adding that the community had poured a lot of love into that show, and they both wanted to do a show that the community would love and appreciate just as much.
While he says he’s unsure how “The Gin Game” came to him, Whitaker says he first mentioned the play to Thompson right after the first run of “Driving Miss Daisy,” more than 10 years ago. Thompson and Whitaker reprised their roles as Hoke and Miss Daisy in January, delighting Boro audiences who rushed to see it again, along with many for the first time.
The notion of performing “The Gin Game” was sealed for Whitaker when he saw Tyson and Jones perform it on Broadway in 2015, sitting on the very front row.
“I said, ‘Yes!’” he said.
Thompson wasn’t so easily sold.
“The first time I read it, it scared me,” she said. “It scared me off.”
Thompson found the language a bit off-putting, and was concerned whether Statesboro audiences would be accepting of it.
“Would we destroy something of Daisy and Hoke if they heard us cussing and fussing and fighting?” she wondered. She was also concerned about the challenge of the “busyness” that playing cards while performing would present.
But Whitaker pointed out to her all the great actors who have previously performed in the play.
“That makes a big difference. There’s got to be something there,” he said.
“It’s a Pulitzer Prize play, and if those performers thought it was worthy, let’s have another look,” Thompson said.
Finding the right time to do the production was also a challenge, as Whitaker wanted to work with Johnson. The men have been friends since they were 17-year-old freshmen at Howard University, and although they both performed frequently during their time there, they had never had the opportunity to work together.
Johnson taught a couple of master classes for Whitaker during his tenure at GSU, and recently spent spring term teaching a class. Kelly Berry, associate professor of Theatre at GSU, was instrumental in bringing the whole thing together.
“We had Charles in this past semester to teach a one-hour credit class. When he agreed to do that, then it became apparent that we can make this work too, because we can bring him back multiple times during the semester,” he said.
The play has been in rehearsal for weeks, with recordings being sent to Johnson to review and critique. He’s been approving costumes, lighting and set design, and making suggestions along the way.
“He’s in the game,” Thompson said.
Johnson joined the crew this week, and began rehearsals on Thursday night to polish things up. Berry says most of the things Johnson suggested have been incorporated into the production.
“He’s really watching the run, and working on the intimacy of these two,” he said, referring to the characters played by Thompson and Whitaker.
The play will be Whitaker’s first full play performance in the Whitaker Black Box Theater, and the first ever in the venue for Thompson. The significance of performing on a stage named for him isn’t lost on Whitaker, nor on his long-time friend.
“To be doing all of this at the Whitaker Black Box, you know what I’m saying?” Whitaker said, hand over heart.
“Being able to work in a theater that’s named after my friend, to share the many years of experience he’s had down here, it’s kind of a wonderful experience and a wonderful joining together of friendship and professionalism that makes me very emotional in a way and especially very proud of Mical,” Johnson said.
But Johnson also had reservations about this particular play being performed locally.
“When I first read the play I thought, are we really going to do this in Statesboro? I think because they have had such a wonderful relationship in this community, and also they have worked together with Miss Daisy, their audiences know them,” he said, adding that they have toned the language down a bit. “I think it will cause some controversy in the community, but I think that the audiences that know Mical and Carol will accept it. It’s a wonderfully written play.”
The intimacy offered by the stage at the Black Box will enhance the performance experience for both the audience and the performers, and Whitaker says it was a conscious choice to do the play there.
“The play could be done anywhere, but the intimacy at the Black Box gets the audience into that roller coaster of emotions,” Berry said. “When you’re this close, you feel what’s going on on stage. There’s no disconnect.”
Berry helped to design the set, and worked on the production with several of GSU’s theater students. Amy Presley has served as stage manager, Kelsey Waller handled costumes, Mary Flott worked as lighting designer, and Chris Wilson is the sound designer. Ressie Fuller, another well-known local performer, has assisted Presley, working with the actors and making sure their lines are exact.
Johnson credits the students, Kelly and the actors with helping him to stay involved throughout the process.
“I think I’m going to come down and fall right in line,” he said early this week. “And in the first few days feel like I’m home.”
Johnson says his experiences as a television producer and as an actor himself will benefit the production.
“I’m an old hand at trying to split the difference between what you do in television and what you do on stage. I think I’ll use a few of my tricks from television, but rely on my old experiences in theater,” he said.
Johnson said he is looking forward to working with Thompson and Whitaker, and calls them both pros.
“It should be fun,” he said. “They come at it as a play that’s been done with great success. I find it a wonderful play, sometimes a bit sad. It explores some interesting ideas about getting older and relationships to families, and unfulfilled goals and promises in life. It’s a really good life lesson.”
Tickets for the general admission show are $16 for adults and $10 for students. The two-act play does contain strong language and may not suitable for all ages. Tickets can be purchased at the box office in the Averitt Center main gallery (open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday), by calling (912) 212-2787 or online at www.averittcenterforthearts.org.