“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” Packs A Punch 48 Years Later As The Stage Version Hits The Rep

Richard Prioleau and Shannon Marie Sullivan as John and Joanna in "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Richard Prioleau and Shannon Marie Sullivan as John and Joanna in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Still relevant after all these years but for different reasons, the stage adaptation of “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” hits the ground running at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis that opens the New Year on the Mainstage. Still set in 1967, some of the gasps from dialogue and situations from that era have turned into laughs for this audience. Not to say the impact isn’t still there because, although we’ve moved into a different era, the not-so-gentle reminders of how different the races are have been all around us in recent months. Although marriage equality has taken on a much different meaning these days involving same-sex couples with, thankfully, ever increasing success, there are still those who cringe today at interracial couples just as a much bigger audience did when “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” was nominated for the Best Picture oscar 48 years ago.

Anderson Matthews as Matt scuffles with his old friend, Monsignor Ryan, played by Joneal Joplin at the Rep's "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Anderson Matthews as Matt scuffles with his old friend, Monsignor Ryan, played by Joneal Joplin at the Rep’s “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Playwright Todd Kreidler has made very few changes from the original William Rose screenplay and that has garnered these very different reactions today- mostly during the First Act. Unfortunately that also leads to a very preachy and, at times, unrealistic turn-around in both families’ attitudes in the short frame of time when John and Joanna announce their intentions to the extreme outrage (particularly from the fathers) to them all sitting down to dinner together. So Act Two may ring true from an historical perspective but it may seem a bit ludicrous to today’s audience. Still, it’s good to reminded of how compromise, understanding and love (of the couple and each family toward their children) can lead to a moment that’s bigger than the prejudices of two families.

Richard Prioleau as John, calls out his father, played by Leo Finnie in "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Richard Prioleau as John, calls out his father, played by Leo Finnie in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Associate Artistic Director Seth Gordon has directed “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” with a keen eye for the original intent of the screenplay and how times have changed in the intervening years. The natural laughs are there and they flow as easily as those poignant moments when each character comes to the universal truth of what they are each dealing with. Kevin Depinet has designed a lovely set though, at times, the various levels and similarity of the eating and gathering spaces get in the way of the natural flow of the actors. Peter E. Sargent has brought a strong light design to the production and Myrna Colley-Lee’s costumes are period appropriate.

Inga Ballard as Tillie warns Richard Prioleau as John that she's watching him as the Rep presents "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Inga Ballard as Tillie warns Richard Prioleau as John that she’s watching him as the Rep presents “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

In these days when standing ovations seem to appear whether warranted or not, this cast does deserve one and they got it on opening night. Anderson Matthews, who I’ve praised and panned in the past over his many Rep performances, has done a remarkable job as Joanna’s father, Matt Drayton. As the rich, uptight newspaper editor, he displays a wide range of emotions and even brings out his inner Spencer Tracey during the final scene where he gathers all of the parties involved (a la Hercule Poirot) and almost shames them into adopting the right attitude to their respective children. As his wife, Christina, Margaret Daly is really the first to take the high road and accept her child’s declaration of true love. She takes on that spunky attitude even going so far as to put her best friend and valued worker in her art gallery in her place for her bigoted viewpoint.

Anderson Matthews as Matt tries to calm Leo Finnie and Perri Gaffney as John's father and mother during "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Anderson Matthews as Matt tries to calm Leo Finnie and Perri Gaffney as John’s father and mother during “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

As the young couple, Richard Prioleau and Shannon Marie Sullivan are outstanding. He makes John a very likable character and even eventually wins over the heart of the Drayton’s black maid, Tillie, who perceives him as a hustler. His impassioned outburst at his father at the end of one scene rivets the audience and prompts an almost stunned, delayed round of applause. Ms. Sullivan imbues her character with a passionate soul. She’s not going into this relationship with blinders on- she realizes the mountain of controversy they will have to overcome. It’s just been a short time since the Civil Rights Act and an even shorter time since the Supreme Court ruling the prohibition of mixed race couples unconstitutional. Which makes “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” even more relevant and her character even more daring for the times.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend and Margaret Daly as Hilary and Christina in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend and Margaret Daly as Hilary and Christina in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

As John’s parents, Leo Finnie and Perri Gaffney are exceptional. His outrage is displayed in both voice and movement and he appears to be the most vocal in his disappointment in his son and his misguided notions. He even storms out of the house and only comes in later, fearing that the police may spot him sitting in his car and think he may be “casing the joint.” Ms. Gaffney is also disillusioned with her son’s choice but soon realizes the love between the two young people and softens.

Inga Ballard is superb as Tillie. Commenting- often under her breath- at the goings on in the household, she is forced to undergo a change in her attitude as well. Two other characters outside the households add to the mix. Elizabeth Ann Townsend is Christina’s friend and co-worker who makes her feelings known and takes it on herself to “fix” the situation. It’s a low-key but very strong performance as she takes on the role of the only real villain in the piece. And finally, the always remarkable Joneal Joplin plays Monsignor Ryan who unabashedly sides with the young couple from the get-go. This wily veteran of 93 (that’s right, 93) performances on Rep stages, takes a smaller role and makes it into a star turn. He wryly throws out clever lines throughout the evening.

Anderson Matthews as Matt shares his feelings in the final moments of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Anderson Matthews as Matt shares his feelings in the final moments of “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

This is not your father’s “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” It looks the same (go back and re-watch the film) but, with a savvy audience and an even savvier production, this becomes a new, thoughtful play about race relations hidden inside a movie that shocked a generation almost fifty years ago. Call the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis box office at 314-968-4925 and get your tickets for this outstanding production. “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” plays on the Rep Mainstage through February 1st.

 

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