BWW Review: Don Bluth Front Row Theatre Presents GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER ~ True Colors Laid Bare
Let us now measure GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER first by its relevance and then by the performance of the actors in Don Bluth Front Row Theatre's production of Todd Kreidler's 2013 stage adaptation of the 1967 film classic.
In the context of today's racial turmoil and efforts to reverse decades of civil rights progress, one might posit that the original story line about an interracial couple wanting to wed is dated. After all, consider that the premiere of the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn/Sidney Poitier film coincided with the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision by the United States Supreme Court that anti-miscegenation laws (criminalizing interracial marriage) were unconstitutional. Since then, interracial marriages as a percentage of all marriages has increased steadily. So, why revive the story?
In re-writing and narrowing the focus of GWCTD, honing in on the attitudes and values of the characters, and configuring it for the stage, Kreidler has given today's audiences substantive food for thought and reflection about the limited extent to which true progress has been made in redressing grievances, bridging the cultural gap, and washing away the nation's original sin. He does not trivialize the issue but employs humor to accentuate the tensions. He elevates the narrative as a platform to probe the simmering fears and anxieties that still condition the travail over race. He constructs a pathway to reconciliation and accommodation among the parties and yet, with a disconcerting twist at the end, he implicitly acknowledges that the fix may be only temporary and for the wrong reasons.
Director Cheryl Schaar does a yeoman's job in interpreting the playwright's intention, assembling an outstanding cast, and creating a well-paced and engaging production.
The setting is centered squarely in a living room overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, adorned with the trappings of the well-to-do Drayton family, whose daughter has announced to the surprise of her parents that she is engaged to an African-American doctor.
What ensues is a bold deviation from the course of the film that thrusts the audience straight into the eye of the family hurricane and compels us to concentrate without distractions on the discrete and nuanced perspectives of all the crisply defined characters.
What makes this production a bristling and engaging endeavor is the extent to which the prospective marriage and the tensions it arouses can be viewed in distinctively different ways, depending on the particular character's particular set of lenses and the extent to which the actors in this production give depth and texture to their roles.
Rachael Kaplan, in a lovely and impassioned performance, epitomizes the innocence, idealism, and youthful exuberance of Joanna, the daughter who has taken to heart and mind the rhetoric of her prominent liberal parents ~ Matthew (Lee Cooley), her newspaper publisher father, and Christina (Toni Kallen), the owner of an art gallery ~ only to discover, in the moment that counts, that all was not as it seemed. The bruises of hypocrisy and betrayal hit hard on her soul.
Justin Hosten as Dr. John Prentice, Joey's beau is refined and contained as he labors to quell the doubts and resistance that come at him from all corners, even that of the household maid. His is a class act, affirming that there can be no marriage without the assent of the parents. His demeanor transforms when his parents, invited without his knowledge, arrive for dinner and he must confront a different set of inconvenient truths.
In the course of Tenea Hudson's sublime and hilarious portrayal as Tillie the maid, we see race through a different prism. We are given to recognize that bias is not the domain solely of her employers. She is instantly, unabashedly and reflexively vocal in her misgivings about the young fiancé's intentions, giving voice to a meme of her own life experience. At the same time, Hudson compels us to think beyond the stereotypical maids of cinematic fiction and delivers a rousing performance as a strident force in directing the household's traffic, while possessed of a heart of Gospel gold, which, given time and exposure, will pan out.
For a contrast between saintly and satanic countenances, the playwright has rendered, on the one hand, Monsignor Ryan (Malcolm Hooper), a mild-mannered priest whose pontifications about open-mindedness are ill-received by Matt. On the other hand, we encounter Hilary St. George (Janis Webb), the curator of Christina's gallery, who, in a jaw-dropping scene, dons the mantle of obnoxious bigotry as she lays out a plan to sabotage the engagement.
At the center of the family web are the parents who have been shaken and stirred by Joey's surprise announcement. It is in the arc that extends beyond their first chagrin that the heart of this work pulsates with intensity, emotion, and humor. In this regard, Lee Cooley and Toni Kallen as the Drayton's and Nathan Alfred and Larissa Brewington as the Prentice's deliver standout performances as they evoke the turmoil that churns in their hearts.
Toni Kallen's authenticity and warmth shine throughout her brilliant performance as the mother who cannot help but to align with her daughter's wishes and stand against her husband's rectitude. Larissa Brewington is her powerful counterpart, inveighing likewise against her husband's stubbornness.
In the poignant and explosive performances of Messrs. Cooley and Alfred, the apprehensions and fears of two men from very different sides of the track are expressed with gut-wrenching effect. Both fear what grievous pains their children may suffer at the hands of an unkind and intolerant society.
Yet, as the men gravitate to a reconciliation of sorts, their accommodation to their offspring becomes less a matter of racial enlightenment than it is of addressing what was posed as a challenge to their manliness. They are called upon to remember what it felt like to love and be loved and how vital and precious was each day in the lives of young lovers ~ and they comply.
So, ironically, Kreidler has not put race to bed. He cannot. He allows for a happy ending but one embedded in a conundrum of his own crafting, leaving each of us to continue to unwrap the riddle of race.
For a thoroughly well-directed and well-acted play with gravitas and wit, this show rates a must-see.
GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER runs through September 28th at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre in Scottsdale, AZ.
Photo credit to Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
Don Bluth Front Row Theatre ~ https://www.donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com/ ~ 8670 E Shea Blvd., #103, Scottsdale, AZ ~ 480-314-0841