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Review: GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is a Feast at Desert Theatreworks.

This production is a must-see.

Review: GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is a Feast at Desert Theatreworks.
Joanna (Tessa Gregory-Walker) introduces Dr. John Prentice
(Kevin Hayles) to Monsignor Mike Ryan (Hal O'Connell).

In keeping with a happy new tradition of post-COVID excellence in Coachella Valley theatres, Desert Theatreworks (DTW) has mounted another must-see production with GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, Todd Kreidler's stage adaptation of the beloved Spencer Tracy - Katharine Hepburn motion picture. The direction, the acting, and the technical design and execution of the comedic drama are first-rate.

The movie, released in 1967, shortly before the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws, involves Joanna Drayton, the 23-year-old daughter of a White, liberal, wealthy San Francisco married couple - newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Tracy, in his last role) and Christina Drayton, an art gallery owner (Hepburn). Joanna comes home from Hawaii engaged to a widowed Black doctor, John Prentice, after knowing him for ten days. She plans to fly out to Geneva with him that night and be married there, where he will take up a research project on tropical diseases. Their daughter has picked a great guy, the kids are in love, and the parents live in an accepting city, so what's the problem? Unfortunately, the Draytons are terrified for the young couple's future, they say because of the vicious people out there. And maybe, just maybe, they themselves would prefer a White son-in-law....

Review: GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is a Feast at Desert Theatreworks.
The Draytons (Daniela Ryan and Michael Pacas) and
Hilary (Tiffani LoBue) listen to the young couple's news.

The screen version of GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, no matter how advanced for its time, is dated in many ways. White men brought it to fruition, emphasizing the White characters, apparently without a great deal of thought how Black people or White women might feel about their portrayal. The filmmakers feared backlash from racists (then generically called bigots), who, at that time, still felt free to express their abhorrence of interracial marriage without the disclaimer, "I'm not a racist or anything, but...." As a result, the young couple rarely expresses any physical affection, and Dr. John Prentice, the male partner, is portrayed as Mr. Perfect.

I was thirteen in 1967, although I did not see the movie till recently. Looking at it today, through eyes accustomed to a society that at least pays lip service to equality, I can see the ways in which the film is dated. For example, many, if not most, straight females would throw themselves today at the gorgeous and accomplished John Prentice, played in the film by a young Sidney Poitier, without giving a darn about racists. That liberal people might reject Dr. Prentice as a son-in-law because of his race seems inconceivable in an era where parents are more likely to fear that their children will pair with partners with tattooed faces and Satanic horns surgically implanted into their heads. I also question what John sees in Joanna, who seems far too immature for a man who tragically lost his wife and son and who has become known world-wide for his medical research. And the movie seems quite naive in repeatedly expressing the view that there is no difference between White and Black people, when we now know about the differences that White privilege and systemic racism can play in determining the trajectory of someone's life.

Review: GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is a Feast at Desert Theatreworks.
Tillie Binks (Sandra Mitchell) gets upset, while Joanna tries to
calm her and the monsignor watches in dismay.

The stage version, first produced at True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, in 2012, updates William Rose's screenplay to some extent, although, in my opinion, Kreidler could have done more. The update nevertheless allows 21st century audiences to identify more with the story, which still takes place in 1967. Joanna is now twenty-five, and meets John during her unspecified internship at the hospital where they both work in Hawaii; it is only after having developed a friendship that they embark on the ten-day whirlwind romance that leads to their engagement. Also, his parents do not fly up from Los Angeles, but drive up from Sacramento. This sets up action involving the elder John Prentice and his fear of the police, late in the play, which will seem familiar to modern audiences. Kreidler also adds back story about a tragedy that the Draytons experienced, allowing them to sympathize with the Prentices and their tragedy, although, inexplicably, he all but ignores the event till late in Act II. The most important update, in my opinion, is that the playwright allows the Black women to interact more with each other, giving the audience the chance to focus on them as individuals. The increased emphasis on the Black women also allows them to form a bond with each other through relaying shared childhood experiences.

Director Abe Daniels, a veteran actor and director in the high desert, makes his DTW debut, and what a fine debut it is! Also appearing for the first time at DTW are Kimberly Cole (Mary Prentice), Kevin Hayles (Dr. John Prentice, Jr.), and Sandra Mitchell (Tillie Binks, the wisecracking maid). Their work in this play is superb; hopefully, DTW's audiences will have the pleasure of seeing them again in the future. The newcomers join an equally brilliant cast of DTW's A-listers: Tessa Gregory-Walker (Joanna Drayton), Tiffani LoBue (Hilary St. George), Hal O'Connell (Monsignor Ryan), Michael Pacas (Matt Drayton), Daniela Ryan (Christina Drayton), and Eddie Stephens (John Prentice, Sr.).

To me, one of the marks of a top-notch actor is the ability to play a part without duplicating the performance of an iconic original. Daniela Ryan, Michael Pacas, and Kevin Hayles break free of Hepburn's, Tracy's, and Poitier's molds, and make the roles their own. Ms. Ryan's face is so expressive as Christina Drayton that she ought not try to play poker. Frankly, I like her down-to-earth performance more than I liked Hepburn's more snobby take on Christina. Michael Pacas, who can play anything, and is also an expert at expressing himself just through his face, is totally believable as a nice-guy curmudgeon who finds himself discombobulated by something he has no idea how to handle. Mr. Hayles has the opportunity to go from utter calm to all-consuming fury during the course of the play, and he makes the most of it. He and Tessa Gregory-Walker demonstrate affection, not being constrained by 1967's mores, and their portrayals show the chemistry that made the characters fall for each other. I also like that Ms. Gregory-Walker plays Joanna as a bit more mature than the devil-may-care movie Joanna; this Joanna does not come across as anywhere near as spoiled or manipulative.

Review: GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is a Feast at Desert Theatreworks.
Mrs. Prentice (Kimberly Cole) is worried as her bulldozer husband
(Eddie Stephens) jumps down their son's throat.

Eddie Stephens and Kimberly Cole play off each other perfectly as the doctor's parents. Mr. Stephens, who in real life is also a very nice guy, perfectly portrays a male chauvinist pain-in-the-hindquarters who orders his wife and son around and expects deference from both. Ms. Cole, meanwhile, comes across as the quintessential 1960's loving mother and homemaker, who remains a lady, at least in public, while managing her impossible husband, sometimes even ignoring his demands.

The other three roles (Tillie Binks, Hilary St. George, and Monsignor Ryan) provide much of the comic relief in what is primarily a drama, although they, too, have serious moments. Sandra Mitchell plays Tillie, the Draytons' housekeeper, as a woman who is sure of herself and who refuses to let those who look down on her because she is Black ruin her happiness. Nevertheless, she assumes that Dr. Prentice is up to no good; as she puts it, "Civil rights don't mean you trust everyone." I never did figure out whether Tillie's wariness stems from her genuine concern for Joanna or whether, as in the movie, she has been brainwashed into accepting White society's view that Black people must not try to rise too high.

Tiffani LoBue plays Hilary St. George, who manages Christina Drayton's art gallery and is her friend as well as employee, as a creep. Hilary tries to order Tillie around, although Tillie does not give in, and seems to believe that hobnobbing with wealthy art buyers makes her someone special. Nonetheless, when she finally goes too far and says that someday Joanna will conclude that chocolate has lost its flavor and that she should have married a "real American," Christina fires her. The acting in that scene sizzles, and the scene manages to be funny and wholly serious at the same time.

Review: GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is a Feast at Desert Theatreworks.
The Draytons experience a sweet moment, sharing ice cream.

Monsignor Ryan is a liberal priest who is a golfing buddy of Matt Drayton's. He is the opposite of Hilary, in that he trusts humanity to do the right thing, eventually. Yet, there is a dark side to the monsignor - he drinks far too much, and appears to be willing to drive nonetheless. (This is something that I would have expected the playwright to update). Yet, it is impossible to dislike the monsignor - Hal O'Connell plays him with too much good cheer and provides several much-needed light moments, such as when he engages in a clumsy dance while singing "We can work it out."

In addition to the top-notch acting by all the cast members, the technical aspects of the show are wonderful. DTW has begun incorporating background music into the beginning of scenes while otherwise silent action takes place. I love this addition, which helps set the mood for the upcoming scene. Also, the set, designed by Toby Griffin (the nom-de-decor of a well-known Coachella Valley actor) and the costuming and hair, designed by Rebecca McWilliams, tell important parts of the story. Specifically, while the lovely designs evoke the feel of 1967, they are not direct knock-offs. The period-neutral costuming (except for the narrow ties) and set imply to the audience that the 1960's are gone, that racial and sexual politics are different in the 21st century, but that we are still attempting to rid ourselves of the negative vestiges of the pre-anti-Vietnam era.

Review: GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is a Feast at Desert Theatreworks.
The cast of GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER

There are many reasons to see GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. It will make audiences think, and it provides the chance to discuss racism. But, in addition to its depth, it provides high-quality entertainment. Do not miss this production.

The rest of the production team consists of Ron Phillips (CEO of DTW), Lance Phillips (artistic director), Rebecca McWilliams (production manager and makeup/props, in addition to costumes and hair), Adriana Reyes (stage manager and props), Phil Murphy (lighting design, assisted by his adorable canine, Duncan), Bonnie Saenz in her DTW debut (lightboard operator), and Ryan Chase, also in his DTW debut (soundboard operator).

GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, which is the last production of DTW'S 2021-22 season, will run through Sunday, May 8, 2022, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. All performances take place at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo Street, Indio, CA 92201. Check the ticket purchase information at www.dtworks.org for specific prices or call (760) 980-1455. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination, either physical or electronic, is required.

DTW has announced its summer schedule, consisting of three to four Sunday performances of THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, OLD JEWS TELLING JOKES, and THE Carol Burnett SHOW LIVE ON STAGE.

The 2022-23 season will consist of SOUTHERN FRIED FUNERAL, THE MIRACLE WORKER, A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, JIMMY BUFFET'S ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE, THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, and THE LAST FIVE YEARS.

PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Hayashi



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