By Karen Isaacs
How do you take a popular film from more than 50 years ago and turn it into an effective stage play?
Playwright Todd Kreidler has turned the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, May 12.
The original film (starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracey in his last role, and Sidney Poitier) was controversial at the time. For some it was seen as an over-simplification of a difficult subject, for others it was much too optimistic, and for some it was all-too-politically correct.
In case you don’t recall the film, it is set in San Francisco where Matt Drayton, runs a liberal newspaper and his wife (Christina) runs an art gallery. Their daughter Joanna arrives home unexpectedly with Dr. John Prentice in tow. He’s a world renowned physician and she and he are engaged. The kicker? He’s an African –American.
The reaction from the supposedly liberal parents is perhaps to be expected. Christina is upset but eventually comes around while Matt is apoplectic and unrelentingly opposed. His point is that in the world as it exists the couple will face enormous difficulties. Undoubtedly true then and maybe even today.
But you may be surprised that the family’s housekeeper (Tillie) is also adamantly opposed; though she is an African-American, she suspects John of being a scam artist. And the further surprise (?) is that John’s parents are also opposed.
The difficulty Kreidler faced was how do you take this somewhat dated, feel-good piece and adapt it to the 21st century? After all times have changed at least somewhat. Interracial marriage is no longer illegal and is more common today. According to statistics, interracial marriage has skyrocketed and objections to it from ethnic and racial groups has dramatically decreased particularly in the African-American community.
It is hard to know what restrictions were included in the negotiations for the rights to this piece. But whatever they were, Kreidler has not made many changes.
There is no attempt to up-date it to 2019 by either changing the young couple (it could have been a gay couple or different ethnic groups) or the attitudes expressed.
He has added some changes by keeping the play to one set (the Drayton’s house) and to making the romance not quite as “instantaneous” as in the movie. In the movie it was a “love at first sight” event; here they have known each other a while longer as friends.
Director Kathryn Markey has kept the pace of the show moving and luckily she has a good cast to work with. She also has a lovely set by Daniel Nischan – an obviously large mid-century modern home complete with a terrace overlooking the city.
The cast has several challenges. First there’s the memory of the film’s iconic trio of Tracey, Hepburn and Poitier. Then is the fact that for the most part the characters are rather two dimensional. Dr. John Prentice is SO noble, working in Africa on tropical diseases. Joanna is SO idealistic; Matt Drayton is SO obsessed with his paper and practicality, etc. It is hard to make fully three-dimensional people out of characters that sometimes seem like mouthpieces for particular points of view.
Even the fact that it is mothers who more easily come around to accepting the future marriage is predictable.
As I recall the film, Tracey, Hepburn and Poitier were not totally successful in breathing life into these people. Yet, Tracey and Hepburn were nominated for Oscars, with Hepburn winning.
In this production, the most successful performances are by Gordon Clapp as Matt Drayton, Kaia Monroe as Christina Drayton and Richarda Abrams as Tillie. Marc D. Lyons as Dr. Prentice has difficulty infusing the character with any ease or warmth. He is so reserved, calm and professional, that it is hard to see what attracted Joanna. Cedric Cannon as John’s father has to match Matt in anger and loudness; while Kimberlee Monroe as his mother is limited to basically quiet dignity.
The role of Joanna is also difficult – she is the eternal optimist who also manages to misread obvious signs, such as why John has not suggested her meeting his parents. Kaia Monroe makes the most of the part through sunny cheerfulness.
Bruce Connelly gives his usual fine performance as Monsignor Ryan, a family friend whose main purpose seems to be to make lame jokes and to tell Matt that Ryan is “disappointed” in him. The cast is rounded out with Krista Lucas as Christina’s employee at the gallery whose suggestions on how to derail the romance seems to propel Christina into embracing it.
How you react to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner will depend on your attitude. Do you want to see a replication of the film that you may have seen and enjoyed or do you find the film to be creaky and typically Hollywood.
It’s at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, May 12. For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-787-7318.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.