A Question Of Survival

A Question Of Survival

‘The Gin Game’ personal to Smokehouse actors


Perhaps Jonelle Grace Lipscomb has the most personal perspective on “The Gin Game,” the comedy-drama she’s starring in this month with the new Smokehouse Players theater troupe.

In 1986, Lipscomb was playing a role way beyond her years, cast in Donald L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play as Fonsia Dorsey, who is 71. Lipscomb was just “30-something.” But she had life experience that informed her character.

“In 1981, I had to put my grandmother — who had raised me — in a residential care facility in Eureka Springs. She had developed dementia. She passed away in 1984,” she recounts. “So that was very fresh as far as my memories of her and having gone through that experience. It was obviously a very difficult thing for me to have to do.

“But I always said I would like to do that role again when I was that age myself. Then this opportunity came up.”

This time, Lipscomb is 60-something and working opposite the appropriately aged Tim Gilster, who founded the Smokehouse Players with his wife, actress Terry Vaughan.

“We’ve had the conversations at rehearsal,” Vaughan says. “All of us could be in this position one day — sooner rather than later.”

In the two-character play, Fonsia is a newcomer at a “welfare retirement home,” and the first friend she makes is Weller Martin, with whom she begins to play the card game gin. The relationship starts out as light-hearted, sweet — and even flirtatious — until their own individual baggage turns it into “a game of war,” as Vaughan describes it.

“Weller is one of those people who just doesn’t think the world has ever been fair to him,” Gilster describes. “He would like to develop a relationship with Fonsia, but the fact she starts to beat him at gin reminds him of how his marriage fell apart. I think everybody in the audience is going to hope they fall in love, but he’s got such flaws and such bitterness, it’ll never happen.”

Gilster says his character hits close to home, just as Lipscomb’s does. He’s incorporated facets of “my middle brother, who is the biggest curmudgeon anyone has ever met in their whole life,” he says. “He really embodies the loneliness and the bitterness that’s the core of my character.”

Fonsia has her own issues, Lipscomb says.

“My baggage is that I met a man, married him, we divorced after four years, and I was left with a 2-year-old son,” she says, speaking of her character in the first person. “Five years ago, my son told me he wanted to find his father. And I told him, basically, if you do that, that’s the last you’ll see of me. So I shut myself off from him and my two grandchildren.

“I think they both have hope that this could be somebody they could spend some time with and maybe something might develop,” Lipscomb says of Fosnia and Weller. “But their past lives are so rigidly set.”

Warren Rosenaur is directing the production — which he promises will have its fair share of laughs — in the minimalist style that suits the performance space, which used to be a giant walk-in refrigerator at the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse west of Fayetteville.

“It’s very like the East Village spaces in New York,” says Vaughan, who worked there professionally, as did Gilster. Seating about 60, the last row is about 15 feet from the performance space, she says, and the first row is virtually in the actors’ laps.

“It really does make you hone in and look at the two characters sitting there,” Rosenaur says.

“It encourages audiences to fill in the blanks,” adds Vaughan. “They seem to really enjoy that.”

For Lipscomb, the personal experience continues.

“I know my character development has been different in this play than it was in 1986 because I understand better the loneliness of being the one there,” she says. “It’s so much closer to me at this stage of life.”



‘The Gin Game’

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. June 21-23

WHERE — Ozark Mountain Smokehouse, 1725 S. Smokehouse Trail in Fayetteville

COST — Free; first-night donations go to Magdalene Serenity House

INFO — Email terrytim@cox.net

FYI — The production includes adult language, which the producer would rate a “strong PG.”

Categories: Theater