By Punch Preview Correspondent Lindsey Clark
I went into Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner not really knowing what to expect. I’ve never seen the 1967 film starring the legendary Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy (I know, what’s wrong with me, right?), and only loosely knew that the plot involved a young white woman introducing her family to her African-American fiancé – which, in the setting of the 1960’s, would have been a highly taboo topic. I assumed that turmoil and conflict would abound, and that such controversial subject matter would set a pretty heavy and somber tone -but, playwright Todd Kreidler’s new adaptation of William Rose’s classic screenplay was actually quite the opposite, and I was surprised to find myself laughing from start to finish. Who knew drama could be so funny?
Currently on stage at Arena, Guess Who features a stellar cast who play off of one another to tremendous comedic – and, when necessary, sobering – effect. Led by television and stage actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner (you may remember him as Theo Huxtable from that mildly popular TV series, The Cosby Show), the story revolves around Dr. John Prentice (Warner) and Joanna Drayton (Bethany Anne Lind) – a young, inter-racial couple seeking approval from their families before they wed and start their dream life together. Having met at a medical facility in Hawaii, neither John nor Joanna happened to mention their significant other to their parents in letters or phone calls home, but they know that with their return comes the inevitable conversation they’ve both been putting off.
Despite the fact that John is a respected and accomplished doctor, when he and Joanna show up at her parents’ home, they are more than a little taken aback by the news of their pending nuptials. Matt and Christina Drayton (a smartly paired Tom Key and Tess Malis Kincaid) are a relatively progressive couple, but when their daughter is the one testing their liberal limits, it turns out they may not be as open-minded as they think. Fearing a life of hardship from a society that won’t accept their union, Matt struggles to grant John the permission and blessing that he seeks before marrying Joanna, while Christina tries her best to accept and embrace her future son-in-law. It’s clear that Joanna and John are deeply and passionately in love with each other, which, while it helps soothe Christina’s concerns, isn’t necessarily making things easier for Matt and his voice of reason outlook. Adding to the fire are John’s parents, who Joanna secretly invited to join the Drayton family for dinner. John, hoping to break the news to them by letter, is totally unprepared to face his parents, and as he suspected, they are more opposed to the marriage than the Draytons are. John Prentice, Sr. (stoically portrayed by Eugene Lee) warns his son of the dangers he faces by being a black man married to a white woman, but it’s evident from his argument that his fear for the couple is driving his disapproval more than anything else. Eventually, he finds himself at odds with his wife, Mary (Andrea Frye, who remains largely silent on stage until nearly stealing the entire show late in the game) when she decides that the love Joanna and John have for one another is bigger than any outside obstacle they might face as man and wife.
If none of this sounds all that humorous (like I said, I wasn’t expecting a lot of laughs based on the story line), it’s probably because I haven’t mentioned Tilly. Matilda Banks (an excellent Lynda Gravátt) may be the Drayton’s housekeeper, but from the audience looking in, it’s pretty obvious that she’s the one running things. Her quick wit and meddling ways are only surpassed by her love for Joanna – having helped raise her from a baby into a young woman, Tilly is fiercely protective of her employer’s daughter and has no hesitation in voicing her objection to the wedding. Between her and Drayton family friend Monsignor Ryan (Michael Russotto), there is no shortage of advise (mostly in the form of some hilarious one-liners) and personal opinions as both families try to come to some kind of common ground. Valerie Leonard rounds out the comedic relief as Hilary St. George, a trusted business associate of Christina’s who quickly shows that her mouth is the only thing bigger than her hair.
Director David Esbjornson makes the most of the Fichandler Stage’s in-the-round setting – the audience is nearly cast in the show themselves and there were times (at least for me) where you almost forget that you’re not sitting in your own living room during a sometimes awkward and often angry family discussion (and really, doesn’t everyone just love family discussions?). Warner proves he’s come a long way from his Cosby Show days and inhabits his role with an easy confidence which carries over into his character. Winning over two apprehensive sets of parents and a mother hen housekeeper is no easy task, but Dr. John Prentice is not about to let Joanna get away. Part of the humor of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lies in the time and space between seeing it on stage now, when the idea of an inter-racial relationship would barely even register – it was shocking that this would have been considered shocking -but when you put it into perspective of the social climate of the late 1960s following the civil rights movement and the assassination of its leader, it becomes just as insightful as it is entertaining.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner runs at Arena Stage through January 5th, so don’t miss the opportunity to see it before it’s gone. Tickets start at $40 and are available here – Arena will continue its 2013/2014 Season with the January 10th world premiere of The Tallest Tree in the Forest, the true story of actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson.
As the Punch Premiere Correspondent, Lindsey covers all things music and theater related. When not writing for Pamela’s Punch, Lindsey has a seriously sweet gig as Executive Assistant at the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (www.pcah.gov). Aside from writing and seeing as much live music as possible, you can usually find her on a running trail, in front of a painting, staring at her dog, Lincoln, or hanging out with her big sister and fellow Punch Correspondent Niki Clark. Follow her on twitter @lindseykayclark. Contact Lindsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.