One of the endlessly fascinating aspects of the theatre is how different productions of the same play can have entirely different qualities. Take The Gin Game, D.L. Coburn's 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner, now in revival on Broadway. The play is a dark comedy about an elderly couple playing cards in a rundown old age home. In the original Broadway production, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy gave indelible portraits of loners corroded by their troubled, loveless lives. As a result, the show's original look (set by David Mitchell, lighting by Ronald Wallace) was gray, dark, enclosed.
The current Broadway revival, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly under the aegis of the not-for-profit National Actors Theatre, stars Julie Harris and Charles Durning (above); their performances give The Gin Game a slightly warmer feel. The characters of Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin are still destined to come together only to fly apart, but in this production, there's a hint of romance in the air. There are even textual additions which allow for the stars to execute a waltz around the stage. The design reflects this. James Noone's setting is still appropriately seedy, but it is also larger, with a sense of ruined grandeur. His setting for the nursing home porch is expansive, and glassed in on two sides. He has left room for the outside world, giving the actors a chance to step into the yard a bit; the sky is very much in evidence.
LD Kirk Bookman has added to this look by creating a subtly modulated design that creates the different times and atmospheric conditions required, but which also quietly underscores the shifting moods of the script. This is not surprising, as Bookman has worked frequently with Noone, most recently on the Off Broadway musical The Green Heart. Although one imagines that Noone's set, with its high walls, many windows, and enclosed spaces, might prove to be a real lighting challenge, Bookman says, "As a lighting designer, I'm always overwhelmed by the beauty of the sets. Mind you, if I'm not happy, I'll voice an opinion, but when I'm awestruck by how the architecture has been laid out, then that's the given."
Speaking of his overall approach to the play, Bookman says, "It really had to do with the emotional content of the writing, as well as the basic blocking of the scenes. In my mind, there isn't really a clear day there. I wanted to stretch beyond the limits of realism without it looking stretched, so it was the subtleties I went for." Using a plot consisting entirely of ETC Source Fours, Bookman created a series of looks appropriate to each scene's time of day, but which also worked with each scene's mood. The early part of the play, where Fonsia and Weller get together through card-playing, is suffused with a weak, yellowish sunlight that adds to the depressed look of the set; it's brighter, if not necessarily warmer, than the original production. The look, says the LD, is "a combination of good old-fashioned clear light and some Lee filters--154 and 153."
For a crucial night scene, during which Fonsia and Weller get as close as they ever will, Bookman's lighting creates a vital difference in tone. The stage is filled with romantic blue light accented by warm practicals including porch lights and interior lamps seen through windows. "I took my cue from the fact that, in real life, everything looks nicer at nighttime," says the LD, who adds, "when the curtain goes up there's the last inkling of a sunset for about a minute." The night look features a combination of Lee 201 and Lee 174; the sunset, he notes, consists of "just the remnants of red and amber." The last scene, which features the final, irrevocable break between the characters, takes place during a thunderstorm, with lightning effects provided by High End Systems Dataflash(R) strobes.
Interestingly, since Source Fours are known for giving off a cool light, Bookman says he used no color correction in the play's early scenes. Instead, his approach "has to do with balancing and trusting white light. If you look at the paint job [on the set], it's filled with grays and the slightest steel blues; the coolish light of the Source Fours enhances the scenery. If it had been a warmer, amber-colored set, I might have considered using color correction. But since the whole palette of the show is coolish tones, the light from the Source Fours is perfect." At any rate, Bookman's lighting helps significantly to delineate the prickly, failed relationship at the heart of The Gin Game.
Control for the production is provided by an ETC Obsession 600; lighting equipment was supplied by Four Star Lighting. The Gin Game continues its Broadway run.