Nancy Sasso Janis
OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle
"I have one of the most advanced cases of old age in the history of Medical Science. The mortality rate's incredible." - ‘The Gin Game’
Oakville, CT - A letter from the retired directors of the Clockwork Repertory Theatre in Oakville arrived in the mail. Harold J. and Susan Pantely noted that they used their old stationery and envelopes for this important announcement: “We waited 39 years to perform this play! D.L. Coburn’s ‘THE GIN GAME, 1978 Pulitzer Prize Winning Drama!” The couple has wanted to do the two-person play since 1978, but they were too young back then. Instead of casting age-appropriate actors for a production at the Clockwork, they decided to wait.
The couple goes on to explain to their patrons that they both retired from running the theatre in 2015 and handed the reins over to Ed Bassett and the crew of the Phoenix Stage Company (formerly of Naugatuck.) The PSC has now been operating in Oakville for over a year and decided to include ‘The Gin Game’ in their 2017 season at their new location; Harold and Susan decided that it was time for them to step out of retirement and finally perform this play that they both have loved for so long.
Mr. Pantely writes: “For us, a long-waited performance and for you, a very special time to see us together again, on our old stage, for perhaps the last time. It’s rather doubtful that Susan and I will find another two-person play we both cherish so dearly, and so we promise to make this a performance you will remember and talk about for a very long time. Perhaps, another 39 years? We hope so!”
At the end of the letter, the retired directors express their wish that the good folks at the Phoenix Stage, who have worked hard to make the transition to the Clockwork, would experience the joy of a sold out house for at least one scheduled performance. After the opening night last Saturday, the theatre was forced to cancel the Sunday matinee due to a snowstorm, but I was happy to discover that the performance I attended this Saturday evening was almost sold out. I counted myself lucky to get one of the last available seats in the center of the three-sided stage.
In fact, the seat in the second row was close to the one I sat in on my very first visit to the Clockwork Repertory for a review of ‘Rumors’ that is still available on Patch.com. It was back in 2012 and before I was a contributor to Onstage, so I was posting my entire reviews on the Naugatuck Patch. As I waited for the play to begin, I was reminded of how I opened what was one of my very early theatre reviews.
I had never been to the Clockwork Repertory Theatre in Oakville. Described as a "3/4 round" space with stadium-type seating, it was a unique arrangement that allowed everyone to have an excellent view of the ground level stage. It gave a new meaning to an intimate theatre. Their website warned that reservations for Saturday evening performances were strongly recommended and upon arrival I found that, in fact, the performance was sold out. I decided to sit stand-by and thanks to the gracious Harold J. Pantely and his wife, I was able to snag the only available seat. Since I never mentioned that I was a reviewer wannabe, I can only assume that they treat all patrons as warmly.
And now the couple that had been so nice to me at the beginning of my reviewing career was back on the stage that they had renovated back in the early eighties. Moreover, they did so as a way to thank their many patrons for their years of loyalty and support.
This production of this award-winning play was well-worth the wait. The husband and wife team delivered brilliant performances.
This two-person play originally starred married couple Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn on Broadway in their most famous roles. They were succeeded by E.G. Marshall and Maureen Stapleton. A revival in 2015 starred James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. In the drama, Weller Martin makes the acquaintance of Fonsia Dorsey on the porch of a seedy nursing home where they reside. They begin to play a series of gin games and each reveals details of why they dislike the home and what got them there. The game quickly becomes a metaphor for their lives and as each game progresses, tempers flare until a most unexpected climax puts both at odds with each other, their pasts and themselves.
From the moment Mr. Pantely entered the sun porch of the decaying Bentley Nursing home home, he commanded the stage in the role of Weller Martin. I soon realized why this actor had been such a fine director. While it cannot be easy to direct yourself in any play, this drama with lots of comic touches must have been quite a challenge.
Mrs. Pantely was a more quiet presence as Fonsia Dorsey, a recent arrival to the retirement home, at least at the beginning of the play. Every move, every look is carefully crafted to bring this aging retiree to life.
The couple served as their own co-directors, while Mr. P designed and constructed the authentic set for his beloved former stage. Mrs. P was in charge of the costumes, as she had been for many a Clockwork production. There was some accent music from 1977 between scenes (I recognized one soap opera theme) and some choir music that annoyed Weller.
‘The Gin Game’ with Harold and Susan Pantely will close with an added matinee at 3pm on Sunday, February 26 to make up for the weather-related cancellation.
Nancy Sasso Janis is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and continues to contribute theatre news on local Patch sites. Follow her on Twitter at @nancysjanis417 and at her Facebook page Connecticut Theatre Previews.
Pictured: Harold and Susan Pantely in 'The Gin Game' Photo by Phoenix Stage Company