A Gambler’s Guild to Dying: A Scotsman Betting on Life.
One of the things that can turn a one-man show from painful to poetic is the writer’s emotional connection to the deeper meaning of the story. Although not guaranteeing greatness (as nothing in life is guaranteed, so we are told in this play, it’s all a big gamble), the personal investment in the core of the story is a good indicator how affecting it will be. In The Gambler’s Guide to Dying, we instantly feel the desire for writer and performer, Gary McNair to let us in to his grandfather’s life and backyard, so to speak. McNair wants us to share his grandfather with us, tall tales and all, so we may understand a bit about his grandfather, his family, his history, and himself. As guided by Gareth Nicholls (director & dramaturgy), we understand from the moment he jumps onto the cluttered stage, what the (overused) metaphor of all the cardboard boxes scattered about means. McNair is going to do some ‘unpacking’ here by telling us the tale of the gambler who was his grandfather, who was his hero, and in many ways, his life teacher.
The names attached to his grandfather are many, as one pronoun can not describe all that this man was to his grandson. He was a complicated man, a presence that feels big on that stage, looking down on his young impressed grandson sitting at his feet. He might not have been that same exciting giant to the others that populate this story, but McNair places him up high on a wobbly pedestal. Maybe this is the dilemma the makes this fine story telling man desperate for us to understand his hero, as many it seemed did not hold him to such a high regard. It’s a strong opening, full of Scottish brogue and a yell. A soccer game that took place decades ago, but lives on in this particular grandson’s mind as the stellar beginnings of his familial history, and the first bet that will wrap his love and curiosity around the liar, the addict, and the hero that is his grandfather.
As the tall tale of that soccer match that gave his grandfather a big financial win becomes emeshed in blurry facts and differing accounts, it becomes clear that his grandfather is not to be trusted with the telling of tales. But that doesn’t stop the grandson from connecting whole heartedly with his grandfather. Especially when the grandfather is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and is given a very small window of time to live. From that point on, all bets are still on. McNair keeps the story simple and funny, filled with sentimentality and touching portraits. The narrator does his job keeping us attuned and pulling us along on his wanderings through the young grandson’s youth and deliverance from trusting and wide eyed listener of tall tales to a deeper understanding of what really matters. He’s an excellent story teller, just like his grandfather. It’s a bit light on the bigger meanings of the world, but the idea of what is the ‘best bet’ is a solid emotionally centered idea. This great man bet his life, literally, hoping for a big payoff, while knowing that what we do while we wait to see is maybe where the sweeter stuff of life resides. Maybe that is the big payoff that he speaks about. How that bet plays out and what it means for the grandson, is the core of this tale. It’s very personal and deeply moving for McNair and for us. It’s centered in a sweet nostalgia and connected to a simple and lovely concept about what makes life worth living.