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FLUSH: Joe Cicio and Karen Stern spar over cards.

Card Sharp

Dreamweavers' 'Gin Game' uneven but daring

By David Templeton

The problem with so many community theater companies is that, in the drive to be taken seriously, most of them want ticket-holders to overlook the fact that they are community theater companies. Somewhere along the way, "community theater" has become a dirty word, a synonym for "amateur," "awkward" and "bad." In reality, there has always been something beautiful about community theater in its purest form.

When theater-loving folks from throughout the community come together to put on a show, to risk their reputations and egos as friends and family line up to watch, it can be as thrilling and magical as a skirmish between two high school football teams, as moving and dramatic as a valedictorian speech by a graduating senior. One need not be a professional to work wonders on a stage, and the fact that the actors are less polished than they will be in the future only adds to the fun. Dreamweavers Theatre in Napa is one of the few local companies that has embraced the word "community," boldly collecting together local actors and directors, most of whom have full-time day jobs doing something else, and putting on a play for their neighbors.

Is it as good, tight and polished as what you'd find at an Equity house with full-time professional directors? No, and it's not supposed to be. If we only allowed pros to play, we'd be cheating ourselves and the many talented folks brave enough to tread the boards for our entertainment. Such companies deserve our support, and Dreamweavers—a lovely flashback to a time when community was not a dirty word—is a prime example of why.

D. L. Coburn's The Gin Game, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, just opened a three-week run at Dreamweavers' 30-seat black box theater, hidden away in the rear of the River Park Shopping Center in Napa. As directed by June Alane Reif, it is a spirited and entertaining effort, though frequently uneven and occasionally a bit confused—like the characters portrayed in the play.

Fonsia Dorsey (played with brittle primness by Karen Stern) is a new resident at a seedy retirement home where she apparently receives no visitors. When she meets surly but charming Weller Martin (Joe Cicio) on the cluttered back patio, he invites her to play a hand of gin rummy, and an apparent friendship is born. Described by the author as a "tragic-comedy," it is only a matter of time before the cordial twosome turn on each other.

Played with a kind of courtly vulgarity by Cicio (last seen in Pacific Alliance Stage Company's Wonder of the World), Weller's catalyst for his developing rage is Fonsia's apparent inability to lose a single hand of gin, despite never having played the game before. "Lord knows I'm no expert," she coldly teases him. "I just play like an expert."

For Fonsia, it's Weller's coarse language and bad temper (and eventual similarity to her ex-husband) that peels away her carefully crafted veneer, revealing a cruel, calculating, judgmental side that Weller begins to use against her as the game turns decidedly unfriendly.

All of these layers are difficult to play, and Cicio and Stern aren't quite up to the challenge, so their characters exist much more on the surface than when more experienced actors take on this production. As a result, the character shifts are a bit confusing, and Fonsia and Weller come off as simpler people than written to be. But under Reif's spare direction, that works most of the time. Instead of hinting early on at the meanness each has developed after so many years of regret and loneliness, each character surprises us when they suddenly throw a low blow, as when Weller tells Fonsia, whom he's recently learned has a son who despises her, "You know what's wrong with most of the people in the world? They have a mother who's just like you."

With language strong enough to peel the paint off the set, this Gin Game won't be for everyone, but for the opportunity to see two gutsy actors taking huge chances, and mostly succeeding, community-theater supporters will definitely want to be dealt in on this one.

'The Gin Game' runs Friday–Sunday through Aug. 24. Friday–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm.  Dreamweavers Theatre, in the River Park Shopping Center, 1637 W. Imola Ave., Napa. $18–$20. 707.255.5483.

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