Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Guess-Whos-Coming-to-Dinner 75It gives me chills to think that the incredible appropriateness of the timing of this production was merely accidental.

 

Guess-Whos-Coming-to-Dinner 500

The Rep’s decision to include Todd Kreidler’s stage adaptation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in its 2014-2015 season could not have been timed anymore perfectly. With the recent eruption of racial turmoil in the St. Louis area, one might assume the theatre’s timing was intentional. However, this season was selected and announced long before the death of a young black man at the hands of a white cop propelled the cities of Ferguson and Florissant into national headlines. Although this performance is based on a film of the same name, released in 1967, Alyssa Peterson writes in the show’s playbill that “ultimately, Kreidler decided to adapt Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because he believed the story had the power to ‘provoke a conversation we still need to have.’” It gives me chills to think how accurate this statement truly is and, again, to think that the incredible appropriateness of the timing of this production was merely accidental.

Mirroring the Academy Award winning film that preceded it, this play introduces us to the Drayton family, which consists of the very liberal minded, forward thinking trio of father Matt (Anderson Matthews), mother Christina ‘Chris’ (Margaret Daly), and daughter Joanna ‘Joey’ (Shannon Marie Sullivan). They have a black maid Tillie (Inga Ballard) who is practically a member of the family. When Joanna comes home after some time away, she has brought with her quite the surprise—an unexpected dinner guest by the name of Dr. John Prentice, Jr. (Richard Prioleau).

The series of introductions that follow are extremely comical, though saddening, as Joanna proclaims her love for (and engagement to) John. While Joanna seems to think the 10-year age difference between the two is what is shocking, it’s the color of John’s skin that leaves her father and mother at times speechless and terribly conflicted. (Remember, this is San Francisco 1967).  John requests their blessing and tells them if he does not have it by dinnertime, he will be unable to marry their daughter. John is well aware of the severe criticism he and Joanna would receive in the U.S., where their marriage was still considered illegal in some states, though Joanna is, in the words of her parents, radically optimistic. Without Matt and Christina’s blessing John feels the new couple won’t stand a chance.

The entire production takes place during the course of a day in the Drayton home. Though very much the stagnant set, it quite appropriately forces the characters to explore their thoughts quickly in preparation for a dinner at the family table in the back, stage left. John must have his answer by that night, this urgency propelling the play immensely. There is no time for a dull moment!

I must briefly interrupt my train of thought to convey just how gorgeous the midcentury furniture and costumes were for this production. Christina and Joanna had the most gorgeous vintage dresses, so much so that I found myself wishing for more costume changes! Props to Myrna Colley-Lee for dressing these lovely ladies.

The most compelling part of this production is the short, but extremely satisfactory work it makes in character development. The conversations held between Joanna’s parents, Matt and John, Joanna and her parents, and Tillie and various characters throughout are so absorbing! Sometimes funny, other times serious, the dialogue is thought-provoking, strong, and relevant. If the Drayton’s didn’t already have a severe enough “situation”—as they referred to John—on their hands, Joanna has two more surprise guests coming for dinner towards the play’s end, and what ensues upon their arrival only magnifies the tension on set.

Our two stars here are Anderson Matthews as Matt Drayton and Matt’s golf buddy Monsignor Ryan (Joneal Joplin), who is the play’s token voice of religious reason. Both Matt and Christina have friends who play devil’s advocate to their hesitations about interracial marriage (for Christina it is her friend and business partner Hilary, played by Elizabeth Ann Townsend). Monsignor Ryan and Hilary function as comic relief in the production—in entirely different ways I might add—however I found myself rooting for Monsignor Ryan as he called his long-time friend Matt out for being a phony liberal. His insight is refreshing and stands the test of time, much in the same way that the play as a whole does.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is uplifting and honest. It provokes self-reflection and has the potential to stir discussion at the dinner table of every audience member in attendance who is willing to continue a much needed dialogue on the subject. As Rep Artistic Director Steven Woolf asks, “How do we welcome someone not of our world into a new place? What are our levels of tolerance? Have things become more inviting since 1967?” | Megan Washausen  

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner runs at The Rep through Feb. 1. For ticket information visit http://www.repstl.org/.

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