Theater veterans reconsider 'The Gin Game'by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
This weekend, two stage veterans who have worked together on and off since the early 1960s will present their latest collaboration. Wendy Lehr and Bain Boehlke will perform "The Gin Game" at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. The play strikes a few chords for them, personally and professionally.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Bain Boehlke recalls the first time he saw Wendy Lehr. He's a little fuzzy on the date -- 1961 or something -- but the moment is clear.
It was in the West Bank area of Minneapolis, and she was wearing a chic, short, black and white plaid coat.
"Little did we know that in the ensuing years our careers would be very much co-incidental," Boehlke said.
Lehr had come to the Twin Cities to join a new group called Theater on the Road. Boehlke was founding member.
"And this little theater had a pickup and a Volkswagen," said Boehlke. "We traveled a five-state area, and we did everything from Sophocles to Thurber's 'Carnival,' to Eugene O'Neill."
"Church plays," laughed Lehr.
"Church plays, religious drama," Boehlke responded.
Boehlke is a grizzled bear of a man, with spectacles held together with a hunk of duct tape. Lehr is almost birdlike in comparison, her face in a half smile at Boehlke's recollections.
Lehr is a little fuzzy on some of the details too. She gets together sometimes with some actor friends, but they have different memories of what they did.
"They always say, 'Oh, you were so good,' and I said 'God, I can't even remember it.' It was just about putting on the dress and going out there and sparkling," Lehr said.
After Theater on the Road folded in 1963, Lehr and Boehlke ended up at the Children's Theater, where they both worked and taught for years.
They performed dozens of shows, but the one they still get asked about was a production of Cinderella, which was staged a number of times.
Boehlke played the wicked stepmother, and Lehr played her daughter, Pearl. Boehlke says he still gets stopped in the grocery store line for that one, which makes Lehr roll her eyes.
"You don't want your obituary to be, 'Ugly stepsister dies.' I've done a few other things too," Lehr laughed.
"Wendy's done a few more things, but I'll always be known as that," added Boehlke. "My tombstone will be a picture of me with big eyebrows."
There have other theaters since -- The Paul Bunyan Theater in Bemidji, the Arizona Theater, and now the Jungle, which Boehlke founded 17 years ago.
Boehlke and Lehr sit at a card table in the middle of the Jungle Theater stage. It's crammed with junk ready for their production of "The Gin Game." The play is set in a nursing home in the 1970s.
Lehr plays Fonsia Dorsey, who has come to the home because she needs constant care for her diabetes.
"And she feels very disenfranchised," Lehr said. "And she meets this person, Weller Martin, and they strike up a relationship that starts up over the game of gin. Not the beverage, the game, of course."
Weller is in bad shape for other reasons. He doesn't feel he should be in the home, but can't leave because he's on welfare and has been sent there by the state.
"He has relatively abandoned the population, and he has found an unused, dilapidated old porch," said Boehlke.
It is there he plays gin with Fonsia, and they talk.
"It's a fascinating look at the problems of aging, if you will, but also of the dynamics of relationship. It's a tragi-comedy, so it has it's darker overtones. But it's also very funny," said Boehlke.
"The Gin Game" is linked to another couple with Minneapolis connections -- Guthrie Theater veterans Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy made the play their own for many years.
Lehr and Boehlke say their production will be different, aided by new approaches to acting, and new understandings of old age.
"When you look back at some of the earlier performances of this, they do seem to have the shape and feel of a kind of classic '50s acting, that may not have the depth that we require today. So it's very interesting to look at this play as if it's a new play," said Boehlke.
When asked to do a scene from the play, they both laugh and politely decline.
"We are the characters," said Boehlke. "We aren't making them up; you have already heard them!"
Boehlke and Lehr are directing themselves in this show. Boehlke says the director is a 20th century idea. Before then, the actors worked it all out by themselves.
"We have had friends come in and see how we are doing and give us notes now and then," Boehlke said. "And we judiciously decide which notes we're going to follow."
Which, given the subject of "The Gin Game," seems entirely appropriate.
"The Gin Game" runs at the Jungle through the end of June.
- All Things Considered, 05/29/2008, 5:51 p.m.