WASHINGTON, December 8, 2013 – Arena Stage consistently distinguishes itself as Washington’s premier American theater for taking on the big important productions. Now playing at the Fichandler stage through January 5, Arena’s treatment of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” is a classic reflection of its longstanding commitment to inclusion.
In addition, this play—based on the 1967 classic film—addresses tough issues like race relations head on. That’s not surprising, since Arena was the first regional theater to integrate its acting company, a legacy it continues with this production.
As most film buffs already know, the original “Guess Who?” starred—for the very last time—the longtime movie team of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as liberal, wealthy and white Bay Area couple Matt and Christina Drayton, the befuddled parents of their naïve young daughter Joanna, who falls in love with a black man, Dr. John Prentice, whom she plans to marry.
Predictably, the Draytons’ comfortable lives are unexpectedly turned upside-down by this development. But, as if this were not complicated enough, Joanna also invites her fiancé’s parents for dinner at the house which leads to an equal and opposite shock for John Prentice’s parents.
Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith perhaps sums up these conflicts best, noting that this “is a family conversation that needs to be had – It’s about getting together around a dinner table and talking about what has and hasn’t changed.”
In this Arena production, directed by David Esbjornson, Malcolm-Jamal Warner—who, back in yet another era portrayed Bill Cosby’s son Theo (1984-1992) in Cosby’s popular TV series—superbly plays the headliner role of Dr. John Prentice, the accomplished research specialist originally created by Sidney Poitier in the groundbreaking 1967 film.
Tom Key and Tess Malis Kincaid play the key roles of Matt and Christina Drayton, the wealthy and sophisticated Bay Area media owners of the local liberal newspaper, with an authentic touch. This is particularly true when they are forced to grapple with those serial surprise visits not only from their daughter, Joanna—warmly portrayed by Bethany Anne Lind—and her newly announced fiancé; but also from Dr. Prentice’s parents, who make the drive in from Sacramento at Joanna’s request.
While the powerful film figures of Tracy and Hepburn may still haunt the imagination of audience members old enough to have seen the film back in the 1960s or those who have caught it on Netflix, one character in this stage version of the story who also rises to the surface as a key member of the Drayton family is Matilda “Tillie” Binks.
Tillie is their no-nonsense maid, played here by Howard University graduate Lynda Gravátt. Tillie really seems to run the Drayton household, and she steals the show even as the California-liberal Drayton couple struggles to solve “The Negro Problem.”
Arena’s Mead Center creative team is led by playwright Todd Kreidler who adapted this play for Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company from William Rose’s original screenplay. Kreidler makes an impressive Area Stage debut by tailoring the Atlanta production to fit the expansive space in the renovated theater-in-the-round experience of the Fichlander Stage. Kreidler’s stage version here also benefits by sets tastefully designed by Kat Conley.
Kreidler’s experience in Pittsburgh as a dramaturg under the tutelage of the late August Wilson also comes through in this production as he tackles this play’s sensitive racial, class and cultural issues head on.
The excellence of Kreidler’s scripting comes through clearly in the secondary but powerfully relevant performance of Eugene Lee as John Prentice, the long suffering educator and father who moonlights as a night watchman to send his son to med school. He still struggles with his identity, thinking of himself as a “colored man,” while his son sees himself as just a man.
Equally impressive is Andrea Frye as Mary Prentice the mother and department store clerk. Mary’s interactions with the white community have been limited and subservient. She simmers uncomfortably, however, and she and her husband have limited patience for the compromising position their son has just put them in.
This ensemble cast doesn’t have a weak link. Veteran supporting actor Michael Russotto cleverly portrays the jovial Monsignor Ryan, the Draytons’ friend who tries to help. Likewise with fellow theater vet Valerie Leonard. As the boorish art curator Hilary St. George, she makes a clumsy and decidedly less effective attempt to solve the “Negro Problem,” but gets dismissed for her efforts.
This reviewer gives “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” a top rating of 4 on a scale of 4, and recommends that serious lovers of timeless and important productions about American race relations include this Arena Stage production on their family Christmas entertainment list.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” continues at Arena Stage through January 5, 2014.
Location: Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington, DC. Very limited parking, but easily accessible via Metro’s Green Line.
Tickets and information: Call 202-488-3300 or visit the Arena Stage website.
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