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.