By Charlotte Alexander

Written and published in 2011

So . . . most of us play the cards we’re dealt, and in the game of life most of the time that’s the best we can hope for.

Not one but two theatrical productions currently gracing Central Coast stages address this truism head-on: one a richly-layered but spare production of D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game,” the other an extravagant adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice.” 

The former turns out to be much more revealing than the latter, particularly on the question of how much control of the game we actually have – especially involving pieces never really examined nor confronted.

Thanks to a sharp and steady script by Coburn and an insightful directorial debut by John Pillow, San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s production of “The Gin Game” is deceptively simple on its surface. Two people near the end of their lives approach each other warily across a card table in “a home for the aged in the American mid-west.” Tom Ammon as Weller and Rae Stone as Fonsia provide the meat and muscle, and ultimately the heart, of this American comedy-drama-tragedy.

Weller admits upfront that he is not a “model retiree.” Wielding his cane, he shouts, “I’m still alive, dammit!” Fonsia at first mostly reacts to Weller’s moods, with expressions ranging from startled to conciliatory. But she too has undiscovered depths.

They spar back and forth through two relatively short acts, Ammon with his barely concealed pent-up rage and Stone with her expressive hands and voice. They seek out the truth to be found in the cards on the table and in the stories they share with each other. These two carry the show with grace and a natural ease. And while the set is simple and serviceable, it is merely a backdrop to the human condition the actors discover in myriad subtle, often nonverbal, ways.

PCPA Theaterfest’s production of “Pride and Prejudice,” on the other hand, is anything but simple. It is full to brimming with details, embellishments and adornments. It boasts a single magnificent, well-designed set, layers upon layers of appropriate lighting and sound elements, a multitude of lovely period costumes, parasols and bonnets, and way too many re-creations of Regency period dances.

Director Roger DeLaurier, having to choreograph the movements of more than two dozen actors in one scene after another, further confuses the audience by obscuring rather than illuminating the pronouncements made by Austen’s characters. 

While publicized as “quick-paced,” the production is not, even with rapid and well-orchestrated overlapping scene shifts. After three hours, including one 15-minute intermission, the strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet (the always pleasing Megan C.C. Walker) and the principled Mr. Darcy (a rigid Quinn Mattfeld) finally play the cards they are dealt, to the relief of the audience and, it should be acknowledged, to the unsurprised delight of Jane Austen junkies. Along the way it is important to acknowledge the work of the always outstanding Peter S. Hadres as Mr. Bennet, Michael Jenkinson as Mr. Collins, Kitty Balay as Lady Lucas/Mrs. Reynolds and Andrew Philpot as Sir William Lucas/Mr. Gardiner. Karin Hendricks, Kelsey Sloan, Jilian Van Niel and Tamara Chambers acquit themselves admirably as Elizabeth’s sisters, as does Polly Firestone-Walker as Mrs. Bennet.

“Pride and Prejudice”at PCPA Theaterfest runs through May 8 at the Marian Theatre in Santa Maria. There’s still time to catch “The Gin Game” at SLO Little Theatre in downtown San Luis Obispo, which closes Sunday, May 1.