Jordan Gross ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which plays at the Huntington Theatre Company until October 5th, is an adaptation of the 1967 motion picture of the same name, with a screenplay by William Rose. A radical movie of it’s own time, the film shows the struggle faced by interracial couples. With a diverse cast of black and white actors, the show is an accurate representation of racial tensions in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. The shows playwright, Todd Kreidler, has done a beautiful job translating the beloved film to the stage. Kreidler’s ability to balance the comedy of the situation with the heightened drama of the subject matter is what makes this play a success.
The time is the ‘60s in San Francisco, and Joanna’s parents, played by Julia Duffy & Will Lyman, consider themselves progressive liberals, but question themselves when Joanna, their daughter, Meredith Forlenza, brings her African-American fiancé, Dr. John Prentice (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) to dinner. Joanna, and eventually John’s, parents must deal with their own unanticipated negative reactions and worries for their children as their own beliefs and ideals are put to the test.
Leading the cast is Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice, a highly successful doctor determined to marry Joanna, but only on the condition that he gets her parents’ blessing. Warner’s performance is passionate and moving, as he delivers both moving speeches about equality, while still nailing all his punchlines. Matching Warner, is Meredith Forlenza as Joanna Drayton, whose performance is genuine and honest. One of the best moments of the play comes early on in the first act when Forlenza delivers a monologue about discovering her love for Warner’s character. The moment was filled with humor, sincerity, and a reminder to all that love is love. However, this takes the other characters in the show a little bit longer to recognize.
Julia Duffy is cast perfectly as Christina Drayton, mother of Joanna. Duffy captures the essence of a woman caught between her head and her heart. Her performance was so beautifully acted, and the character is so well-arced that it was a delight to watch her character grow and understand that she has made incorrect judgements; you begin to find yourself asking “What will Christina have to say about that?” In addition, Tony-Award-Winner Adriane Lenox who played Mary Prentice, mother of John, delivers a powerful message despite limited lines. Lenox is able to move an audience with a monologue about the power of discovering love and passion, and the worrisome ability to forget about it, and influence a decision of Joanna’s father, Matt Drayton (Will Lyman). Both father figures, Matt (Lyman) and John Sr. (Lonnie Farmer), show the intense debacle of trying to remain head of the house while understanding that children will grow and one day have to make their own decisions.
It would be a crime to not mention Patrick Shea as Monsignor Ryan, a good friend of Matt’s who is not afraid to call him out on his bigotry toward his daughter’s fiancee. With his perfectly timed hilarity, coupled with his ability to say the things that so many people were afraid to say in those days, he delivers a truly memorable performance. Lynda Gravátt as Matilda “Tilly” Binks, however, truly steals the show. As the housekeeper of the Drayton’s, Gravátt’s one-liners and snarky remarks portray a woman who deeply cares about the family who she has been working for, while still holding on to the culture of her own people. Though she, too, is fearful for the fate of Joanna and John, she comes around, knowing that love is the most important facet of all.
The actors and their performances were matched brilliantly from the design and technical elements of the show. Dane Laffrey, Scenic Designer, created the set (a house and terrace which spins on a turn table to change the setting), and creates a beautiful space for the actors to perform on, and allow the audience to enter in. Allen Lee Hughes, Lighting Designer, helps Laffrey’s set look picture perfect in balancing the space when there are people in the house as well as out on the terrace. Costume designer, Paul Tazewell, does an excellent job making everyone look good on stage and staying true to the time period.
Director David Esbjorinson has truly created a successful piece of theatre, not just because he has directed and collaborated with these actors and designers to create a wonderful evening at the theatre filled with laughs and an ending that makes you smile, but because he brings up a subject matter that most like to shy away from: racism. This play, although it takes place in the 1960’s, is still relevant today. Racism is prevalent in our society today. One only has to look at what happened just over one month ago in Ferguson, MO with the murder of Michael Brown and the further militarization of the Ferguson area to see it.
There is nothing more powerful at the theater than when you watch the truth resonate with the actors on stage, as well as in the audience. If a racist character made a comment, the audience was not shy in giving audible “boo’s”, and were even more verbal if a progressive character made a comment about seeing the future as an inclusive environment. This play is a great piece of theatre, and it resonates because it’s has a perfect balance of entertainment value and thought provoking discussion. As famously said by Tilly, “I think you should sit down”. Agreed. Go buy a ticket to see Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner at the Huntington Theatre Company playing from now until October 5th, and then “I think you should sit down” in your chair, and enjoy the successful performance.