Court Theatre



Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

At the Court Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago –One of the most talked about motion pictures of 1967 was “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Essentially a glossy Hollywood comedy, the movie became a national conversation piece because it dealt directly with the controversial topic of racial intermarriage.

The Court Theatre is marking the 50th anniversary of the film with Todd Kreidler’s stage adaptation of William Rose’s original screenplay. The adaptation follows the motion picture script closely. The time frame remains circa 1967 and the topic of racial intermarriage remains at center stage, but the head-on exploration of the topic hasn’t retained much of its daring edge. Indeed, the play is largely a sitcom, though a very entertaining sitcom.

The play opens with the audience’s introduction to Christina and Matt Drayton, an upscale married couple living stylishly in San Francisco. He’s a newspaper editor and she runs an art gallery. The couple has a 23-year old daughter named Joanna (the parents continually call her Joey, which she hates) who has been away traveling. Joanna returns unexpectedly, bringing with her John Prentice, an internationally known doctor 11 years her senior, and announces she wants to marry the man. Prentice is almost ostentatiously eligible as a husband—educated, successful, articulate, caring. But he is also black, and the assorted reactions to the proposed interracial marriage form the spine of the narrative.

Both Christina and Matt are stunned by their daughter’s announcement, and Matt quickly registers his opposition on the grounds that the couple would face crushing barriers from society at large for crossing the color line. Christina’s reaction is more even handed. The Drayton’s maid is a wisecracking black woman named Tillie who immediately registers her opposition to the match, accusing Prentice of running some kind of romantic con game on Joanna.

                        Photo-by-Michael-Brosilow.

The plot heats up in the second act with the appearance of John’s parents John, Senior, and Mary. The father explodes in outrage, condemning the proposed marriage as unconscionable folly and suggesting that Joanna is trying to entrap his son.

Much of the action plays the comedy card, abundant laughter coming from the flustered reaction of the Drayton parents, seasoned by the skepticism of the maid and intensified by the fury of John Prentice, Senior. Monsignor Ryan, a Roman Catholic priest and friend of the Draytons, delivers droll observations from the sideline.

Along with its humor, the play does touch on serious issues. Matt Drayton has earned a reputation as a liberal thinker. Is his opposition to his daughter’s marriage built on genuine concern for the personal dangers her alliance would create, or is he using fatherly concern to mask deep-seated racism? Is he a liberal in his public life but a bigot when race enters his own household?

Between the laughs are passages of passionate discourse, primarily from Matt and John Prentice, both father and son, that cut close to the bone on the racial attitudes of the characters. The Prentice father and Matt Drayton are angrily outspoken in their opposition to the marriage, their first hand exposure to racism in the United States informing their opposition. John Junior erupts in bitterness at his father, punctuated by the famous line “You consider yourself a black man. I consider myself a man.” The younger Prentice insists that racial intolerance in this country won’t be conquered until the elder John Prentice’s generation dies out, allowing a younger and more enlightened generation to take over. Those were meant to be prophetic sentiments back in 1967. Today’s audiences can judge for themselves how far we have really come.

Photo-by-Michael-Brosilow

The storyline stacks the deck in favor of the lovers. The younger Prentice is almost too good to be true—intelligent, articulate, and a humanitarian. The play would have taken a different tone if Joanna had brought a black gangbanger into the Drayton household. The Draytons lost their only son a few years before the start of the action, intensifying Matt’s determination to save his surviving child from throwing her life away. The younger Prentice is a widower, his wife and child dying in an accident years before. So each family has a back story that will curry sympathy with the audience.

Early in the play, Mary fires her gallery assistant after the woman offers Catherine racist advice on how to preserve Joanna from a fate worse than death. The character plays no role in the narrative other than verifying Mary’s tolerance credentials. And guaranteeing laughs is Tillie, interposing her tart comments like a sassy maid in a Moliere comedy.

The Chicagoland theater veterans Mary Beth Fisher and Tim Hopper play the Draytons. Fisher bears the weight of being the first parent to be confronted with her daughter’s choice of a future mate and the in-the-know audience expectantly checks out her reaction. Fisher’s facial and body language does not disappoint. Hopper is a two-dimensional figure until he superbly delivers the most affecting and well reasoned speech of the night toward the end of the play.

Dexter Zollicoffer is initially uproarious as the fulminating Prentice father but in later dialogue the audience can see where the man is coming from in his own life experience. Jacqueline Williams is smooth and funny as Mrs. Prentice (the mothers come off as more open minded and thoughtful than their husbands).

Bryce Gangel is outstanding as Joanna, young and fiercely independent and believably in love with John. Michael Aaron Pogue initially lacks the dramatic heft and gravitas the character should display (maybe my memories of Sidney Poitier in the film role still linger unfairly) and the chemistry between Pogue and Gangel isn’t quite there yet. But Pogue rises to the occasion when he verbally lacerates his father for the older man’s intransigent racial attitudes. Sydney Charles is fine as the sharp-longed Tillie and Dan Waller is very good as the priest, though his Irish brogue was sometimes distracting. Rachel Sledd has a good cameo as the gallery assistant sacrificed to establish Christina Drayton’s bona fides as a woman of tolerance.

Director Marti Lyons guides her talented cast to maximize the comedy while still allowing sufficient space for the serious passages. The shifts between comedy and serious discourse are interwoven into the production’s fabric with skillful balance. The play engages prickly issues of race but comedy remains the basic engine that drives the evening.

Scott Davis has designed the elegant upscale San Francisco interior, with adjoining patio. Samantha Jones designed the costumes, Lee Fiskness the lighting, and Andre Pluess and Christopher LaPorte the sound plan.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” could be a big commercial hit at the Court. It should appeal to the nearby liberal University of Chicago constituency as well as the surrounding African American neighborhoods. The play has some meaty comments on race and the generation gap but it’s not an in-your-face polemic. Patrons seeking an amusing two hours garnished with stimulating repartee on an important subject will be just fine.

The show gets a rating

        “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” runs through April 15 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30. Tickets are $44 to $74. Call 773 753 4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org .

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