Sometimes the best thing a loved one can leave behind are the stories. In the right hands, with the right person lending their words, it can almost be like they were never gone. That’s the sense you get when watching Gary McNair’s A Gambler’s Guide to Dying. Stepping in and out of characters, jumping back and forth across decades, McNair fills the hour-long one-man-show with enough material to keep the audience hanging on, but his real accomplishment is making you feel as if you’ve gotten to know his deceased grandfather — the titular gambler.
As the story goes, McNair’s grandfather won a small fortune with a big bet on the final match of the 1966 World Cup. It was a wager that earned him quite a beating in his local pub, but the pay-off proved to be worth it. A teller of tale tales, his grandfather’s questionable reputation earned McNair his share of harassment growing up, and he doesn’t sugarcoat the truth when it comes to his family. Instead, McNair recognizes that he can look up to his grandfather, while at the same time acknowledging his faults — chief among them being an addiction to gambling.
Following his World Cup payday, McNair’s grandfather slowly whittles away his fortune, until it comes time to make what should be his final bet. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only a month to live, he wagers all he has that he’ll survive for another two months. During that time, McNair recounts spending the days working with his grandfather in the garden. They share stories, place penny bets on which television commercials will air during the break, and after two months, they count down the seconds until midnight. Proving the doctors wrong, this should be the high point of their lives — but it also sets the family up for their biggest loss.
Unable to resist the compulsion, McNair’s grandfather doubles-down, betting that he will live to see the year 2000. On stage, McNair relives the heartbreak of learning that their big win wasn’t enough to break the cycle of addiction. Over the course of the performance, McNair embodies his younger self, his grandfather, his teacher, his school bullies, and a bar full of raging soccer fans. While his on-stage acrobatics are impressive, some of the show’s real magic comes from the lighting and sound design. Underneath McNair’s rapid-fire delivery, you can hear the frantic beat of a snare drum, stopping and starting in perfect time with his words. As McNair’s overlapping stories build in excitement, so too does the soundtrack, building and building to the inevitable conclusion. While all that’s happening, the lighting of the show proves to be as dynamic as its star. The soft blue glow of a television set gives way to the warm bright shine of a naked light bulb suspended over the stage. As McNair transitions from scene to scene, from his childhood to present day, the lighting follows close behind signifying a change in setting and evoking the necessary atmosphere for what is to happen next.
By the show’s end, you’ve witnessed McNair run the full gamut of human emotion. His performance is peppered with comedy throughout, but it never detracts from the gravity of what’s happening. It’s a bit of a tightrope act, but one that he manages to pull off.