BWW Reviews: GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER at Arena Stage - A Story Worth Revisiting
There are several questions looming over Arena Stage's production of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Is a story about the complicated nature of an interracial relationship still relevant today? Can the stage adaption measure-up to the classic movie? Are there any lessons to be learned from a story that's almost 50 years old? The answer to those questions is yes, yes and yes! Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a thought-provoking play that challenges us by asking pointed questions regarding equality and love in a heart-warming production at Arena Stage.
Based off of the movie of the same name, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner features a script by Todd Kreidler adapted from William Rose's screenplay. Set in 1967, the story revolves around the progressive, liberal, upper-class San Francisco home of Matt (Tom Key) and Christina Drayton (Tess Malis Kincaid). They suddenly find themselves challenged when their beloved daughter Joanna (Bethany Anne Lind) returns home from a medical internship in Hawaii and surprises her parents by bringing along her African-American boyfriend Dr. John Prentice (Malcolm-Jamal Warner).
The Draytons suddenly find themselves confronting their position on race and the reality of their daughter's proposed interracial marriage. Things become further complicate when Joanna invites John's parents for dinner, who are also surprised to find their son in an interracial relationship.
Adapting any story from the screen to the stage is difficult, but Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is especially a daunting task considering that the film is a cinematic classic and features iconic performances from Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as Christina and Matt Drayton, and Sidney Poitier as John Prentice. Kreidler's script is extremely faithful to the movie, although parts of it have not been successfully adapted to the attitudes of a 2013 audience.
For example, the first half-hour of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner comes off as a drawing room farce. Why? Because the passage of time and acceptance of interracial relationships have made the revelation of John's race less controversial. As a result, his introduction comes off more humorous than it should for a play set in 1967. However, once the plot pivots and the reality of the situation becomes apparent for the Draytons then Guess Who's Coming to Dinner hits its stride.
The acting in Arena Stage's production is top-notch starting with Kincaid who gives a strong performance as Christina Drayton. She proves adept at handling Christina's emotional transformation in the show. Watching Kincaid's Christina shift attitudes as she attempts to make Joanna's union successful is fascinating. Patience and perseverance are the hallmark traits of her Christina, and Kincaid's portrayal is a wonderful embodiment of both.
Part of why Guess Who's Coming to Dinner remains relevant are the questions being asked by Tom Key, who gives a smart performance as Matt Drayton. When he asks Christina, "When you imagined looking through Joey's (Joanna's) wedding pictures, did it ever, remotely-ever, occur to you that the man standing beside her would be like him?" Key's delivery gives one the impression that he's not only asking the question of Christina, but of the audience as well. It's one of the most effective dramatic scenes in the play because it challenges the audience to ask themselves that same question.
Warner, of The Cosby Show fame, turns in a solid performance as John. Even though the comedic aspects of the story are overplayed at times, Warner is successful in demonstrating just how deeply and seriously his character loves Joanna. This strengthens Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as more than just a statement on race relations, but a genuine love story. Adding to that is Lind's Joanna and her chemistry with Warner. They share a touching moment in Act II which features John teaching Joanna a song from his childhood. Lind gives Joanna a warmth and optimism which provide a great contrast to Warner's more mature John, adding to their believability as a couple.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner also features a superb supporting cast led by Lynda Gravátt as the Drayton's maid Matilda Banks, Michael Russotto as a family friend Monsignor Ryan, Valerie Leonard as Christina's business associate Hilary St. George, and Andrea Frye and Eugene Lee as Mary and John Prentice, Sr. Each does a terrific job exploring different aspects of the race conversation in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
David Esbjornson's direction is smart and efficient. He's able to utilize Kat Conley's open floor plan set design to have multiple scenes occurring at the same time. The secondary scenes feature no vocals and dimmer lighting, but allows us to see each character's mouth moving along with subtle physical gestures. These movements are effective in not distracting from the main action onstage and yet help to shape the piece. They give the audience a wider perspective on the multiple conversations happening in the Drayton household on the night Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is set.
Conley has filled the set with sixties era furniture, including a black rotary phone and black and white family pictures. Three chandeliers hang above Conley's set each serving as the boundaries for the different rooms allowing the Drayton home to have a much larger feeling. Allen Lee Hughes' lighting adds to this by featuring distinct designs for the interior and exterior portions of the Drayton home.
Paul Tazewell's costumes and Anne Nesmith's wigs do a great job recalling the styles and fashion of the mid-sixties. Tazewell has brilliantly used each character's outfit to represent various aspects of their personality and economic status. It's a slight overture to the notion that it's more than just race that differentiate Joanna and John.
Terrific acting, astute direction, and a smart costume and set design combine to make Arena Stage's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner a story worth revisiting. As Matt tells Joanna, "There's certainly a story to tell here." Yes, there certainly is.
Run time is two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner plays thru January 5th at Arena Stage 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or purchase them online.