By Lady Beverly Cohn
Stanley Kramer’s 1967 iconic film, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, starring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier, received mixed reviews ranging from “An innately compelling experience,” and “Superior in almost every imaginable way,” to “A stilted screenplay… and a “Dismal morality play about a middle-class couple facing the prospects of their daughter’s marriage to a black man.”
Thankfully, after COVID halted live theatre for several years, it is once again alive and flourishing at the highly-respected Ruskin Group Theatre. William Rose’s original screenplay was adapted for stage by Todd Kreidler and is brilliantly directed by singer/songwriter and playwright Lita Gaithers Owens. She is co-author of the Broadway hit musical “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues,” which was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Musical of 1999. Should you be concerned that the current iteration of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER won’t match the acting of the original cast, rest assured the director assembled a highly professional ensemble who deliver fully actualized performances, mining the various layers of their respective characters.
The play is performed on John Iacovelli’s stunning set, which expanded the limited space into multiple playing areas, and revolves around two families and the maid Matilda or Tilly, wonderfully played by Vickilyn Reynolds, whose character provides comic relief.
Christina Drayton, exquisitely characterized by Lee Garlington and her husband Matt, played by Brad Greenquist, whose performance is equally remarkable, come face to face with their liberal beliefs when their daughter Joanna (Mary Pumper) falls in love with Dr. John Prentice, a successful black man, who is rich, intelligent, and handsome and has travelled the world to conduct research.
Tackling a part played by Sidney Poitier is no easy task, but rest assured that Vincent Washington II has strong stage presence and delivers a compelling, multi-layered performance.
The story begins with the manager of Christina’s art gallery, Hillary St. George, played by Mouchette van Helsdingen, bringing paintings to the Drayton’s home in preparation for dinner with a well-known art collector.
The opinionated maid, who is somewhat of an “enforcer,” is busy setting the table and catches Matt, who owns a newspaper, sneaking a phone call to his office. Knowing he’s under strict doctor’s orders to slow down, Tilly rips the phone out of his hand and tells him to go play golf with Monsignor Ryan, well played by Carl Paul Denk Jr. Joanna arrives with her black boyfriend, Dr. John Prentice, taking her mother by surprise and announcing that she and the good doctor are in love.
Trying to take it all in, mom says, “I need to sit down,” and is immediately faced with whether or not she is a hypocrite with her liberal beliefs. Joanna shares she met John at the hospital, he is eleven years older, and that his wife and child were killed in a car accident. She continues saying, “There’s one more thing,” at which point mom says “Shall I lie on the floor first?” The one more thing is Joanna’s announcement that they plan to marry and will leave for the airport that evening. However, John insists they won’t marry without her parents’ approval, which may not be forthcoming.
In the meantime, Christina orders a background check on John and much to her chagrin, he is who he says he is, including authoring a book. In the meantime, Tilly is as shocked as mom and attacks John verbally accusing him of being up to something. She immediately calls Matt to come home and in short order he’s brought up to date on the situation.
He goes on a rampage expressing why he’s totally opposed to this union, predicting they will endure a miserable life in face of society’s laws against mixed marriages. Matt decides to get to know the suitor a bit more and there is a male-bonding scene in which they discuss Joe Louis’ famous fight with Max Schmeling and who were the best dancers on American Bandstand – the white kids or the black kids. One startling surprise is enough but Joanna cooked up another and unbeknownst to John, she invited his parents to dinner.
Enter John Prentice Sr., skillfully played by Dan Martin, and his wife Mary, veteran of the stage Renn Woods, who knows how to recover a character when you accidentally knock over a set piece. Act II reveals the rage and disgust John Prentice Sr. has toward the dangerous idea of his son marrying a white girl, at one point yelling: “Is this Candid Camera?” Where’s the white guy hiding?”
John’s mom is equally distressed and later expresses her feelings in a poignant monologue, one of several delivered throughout the play by different characters. Matt acknowledges that this situation is quite a surprise, with John Sr. bellowing: “A surprise is a retirement party. This is an ambush!” He storms out and says he’ll be in the car but returns shortly, “I was afraid I would be arrested.”
For those of you not familiar with the original film, you are probably wondering if the two sets of parents will ultimately give their approval or will the love between the young couple be eradicated by prejudice from both sides. To find that out dear readers, I would suggest you buy a ticket as soon as possible, this play is a hit and you’re in for an evening of theatre at its finest thanks in no small part to Artistic Director John Ruskin and Managing Director/Producer Michael R. Myers.