BWW Review: GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER at CINCINNATI SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
Guess Who's Coming TO DINNER, originally an Academy-Award winning movie from 1967 starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, comes to the boards at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company from January 26 - February 17, 2018. The play was written by Todd Kreidler based on the movie with screenplay by William Rose.
Directed by D. Lynn Meyers, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, this production marks the script's Cincinnati premiere in the 50th anniversary of the movie, which premiered on December 12, 1967. The film and play feature many heated discussions about family, black and white issues, generational matters and growing up. It was financially successful with Poitier's position cemented as the top box-office draw of the year.
It is a story of daughter Joanna Drayton (Caitlin McWethy) returning home with a new fiancé - African-American doctor John Prentice. Parents Matt and Christina Drayton (Barry Mulholland and Annie Fitzpatrick) must wrestle with their own buried prejudices. Darnell delivers an impassioned performance as Dr. Prentice, both with his beloved Joanna as well as with his own father. Ken Early, Dr. Prentice's father, is loud and argumentative with his son bellowing about how much he sacrificed to raise John.
The cast includes CSC Associate Artists Darnell Pierre Benjamin and Kelly Mengelkoch in addition to Ken Early, Burgess Byrd, Jim Hopkins and Thursday Farrar, Equity actors. The actors contribute to some of the difficult discussions about family, race relations, and marriage.
"Civil rights don't mean we trust anybody," said Tillie, the maid played with aplomb by Burgess Byrd.
When the two families come together for a dinner, the young couple offers an ultimatum: the families must come to terms with their impending marriage that night - or John and Joanna will part forever.
Although busy with her productions at Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati, D. Lynn Meyers, producing artistic director, answered the call of Brian Isaac Phillips, CSC producing artistic director, to be the first guest director in the new Cincy Shakes space called the Otto M. Budig Theater. She jumped at the chance showing respect and collaboration for the company and the opportunity to present Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
She said it was an essential play because "I don't believe things have changed. I hope they (the audience) will take away that there's still work to be done." She credits the caliber of work at various theaters in Cincinnati.
Actor Barry Mulholland, who is in his fourth season at CSC, delivers a strong and vocal performance as the father who isn't overly pleased with an interracial marriage. He said, "I'm happy to be involved in anything that fosters a message of tolerance. The play is relevant and important. It will be a new play for younger people, but not older people."
Burgess Byrd, an African-American actor, has played several maids in a variety of productions. She is sensitive to that fact and hopes to expand her repertoire. In this play, she acts as a foil. She says things that other people might not say, with humor and wit. Phillips also called her and invited her to perform. "I had worked with him before," she said. To prepare, she watched the movie one night. "The story goes in-depth; the journey is deeper," she said. "I love this adaptation," she added.
Byrd commented that the women all have strong voices in this play. "We have to learn to know each other. Race is still there, but subtler and under the surface," she added. "There are issues, and a lot of work that needs to be done," she said. "It is about getting to know your neighbors," she added.
Although Byrd has lived in Cincinnati for eighteen years, she said, "The words are the same. We're telling an important story," she said. "I am happy now with my career," but she said that gentrification of the Over-the-Rhine area is still an issue.
Jim Hopkins is often cast in strong roles. In this play, he is Monsignor Ryan who visits the couples. "Never let an old man stand in your way," he said. "I may be able to save some souls before supper," Hopkins said.
There are light-hearted moments as well as serious discussions. A play for all ages. The family and racial themes don't change even after fifty years.
With scenic design by Shannon Moore, lighting by Justen N. Locke and sound by Douglas J. Borntrager, the play resonates with a late 1960's set of traditional furniture, an oriental rug, plants on the outdoor patio, and green damask curtains in the living room. The phone is Pacific-XXXX , the former appellation of a telephone's number. Gold and white china graces the living room and dining room tables. There are green overhanging lamps, vases and a hall tree.
Costumes by Abbi Howsom reflect the era. Fitzpatrick has a two-piece beige suit and a grey dress, while Mengelkoch is in a plaid shift with a matching, short jacket.
The Otto M. Budig Theater moved and reopened in a new building in September 2017 at 1195 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, Ohio. There are only six rows, with all seats less than 20 feet from the stage. In 2015, CSC was proud to become one of the first five theaters in the United States to 'Complete the Canon' by producing all 38 plays by William Shakespeare.
The production is a part of this season's subscription package. For more information, contact the Box Office at (513) 381-2273, ext. 1, or visit www.cincyshakes.com . Ticket prices range from $14 - $52. Discounts are available for students, seniors and groups as well as AAA members.
Picture by Mikki Schaffner Photography.