Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Court Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's reviews of An Enemy of the People and Pretty Woman: The Musical


Dexter Zollicoffer, Jacqueline Williams, Dan Waller,
Michael Aaron Pogue, Bryce Gangel, Mary Beth Fisher

Photo by Michael Brosilow
1967 was a year of momentous change in the United States, most notably in race relations, as the riots of that summer rocked the nation. It was also a watershed year for film, and while not to say that awards are ever necessarily an indication of quality, the five Academy Award Best Picture nominees for films released in 1967 have proven to be some of our most enduring classics. Except for Dr. Dolittle, they were reflective of intense issues of the time: race relations (In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), crime (Bonnie and Clyde), and the generation gap (The Graduate).

When playwright Todd Kreidler's adaptation of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was first produced at Atlanta's True Colors in 2012, it became the last of those five films to be adapted for the stage (if one counts Frank Wildhorn's musical Bonnie and Clyde, which is not directly taken from the screenplay but has the same subject matter). This is more than arcane trivia—it likely has something to do with why this adaptation has been produced in the first place.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was on its face a socially conscious comedy-drama that used the affection of moviegoers for its stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to stealthily challenge liberal white audiences on their commitment to harmony between the races. Tracy and Hepburn played a progressive newspaper publisher and his wife faced with their daughter's unexpected decision to marry an African-American man. They had long supported racial equality and integration, but were they willing to bring a man of another race into their family? And repeating the oft-used trope, what about the children?.

Miscegenation seems hardly the burning issue it was back in 1967. Interracial marriages and births of multi-racial children have both risen dramatically since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all miscegenation bans in Loving v Virginia the year the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner film was released. But, though Kreidler's stage play keeps the action in 1967, there's a deeper question than interracial marriage we can take from either his version or the original screenplay by William Rose. How uncomfortable might a well-meaning white person be willing to be to truly embrace integration? Willing to risk social disapproval? To risk violence to oneself or loved ones? To learn enough of another subculture or societal segment to find common ground? Welcoming a mixed-race marriage into an all-white family might be a lot tougher than simply being polite or not unkind to those of a different race on the rare occasions when one night interact.

This challenge was sugar-coated in the charming 1967 film starring one of America's favorite screen couples—veterans of eight previous romantic comedies mostly dealing with the "Battle of the Sexes." Do we need to sugar-coat this challenge today or could we be a lot more direct about it? Or is trading on the affection for a fondly remembered 50-year-old film still a valid way to challenge today's progressive white people?

It may be, but it's a little hard to tell based on this production. Director Marti Lyons hasn't entirely settled on a tone. At times it's played as broad though effective comedy. Sydney Charles is particularly funny as the African-American maid who is unafraid to be critical of her bosses and more than skeptical about their daughter's choice of a husband. Dan Waller, as the cocktail-loving Irish American played in the film by the much-loved and much older Cecil Kellaway, is delightful as well. Lyons's cast in the second act ultimately gets to the pathos of the film, but it's a little jarring and a little unearned given the first act's more comic tone.

Any stage production is going to lack the goodwill audiences brought to the film in 1967. People felt they knew Tracy and Hepburn—and the fact that this was their last film together (Tracy died shortly shooting wrapped) made it even more sentimental. Sidney Poitier, as the fiancé Dr. John Prentiss brought similar goodwill to the story as well. As the first African-American male to win an Oscar and by 1967, a much-loved actor generally, positive feelings toward the actor undoubtedly fed into the reaction to his character. Kreidler, perhaps recognizing this, has shifted focus away from the Tracy-Hepburn characters Matt and Christina Drayton to spread the emphasis more evenly around all the characters. That's smart, but we're left without as much investment in the journey of Matt and Christina to follow as we had in the film. And while Mary Beth Fisher and Tim Hopper are two of our very finest Chicago actors, doing very fine work here, they aren't Hepburn and Tracy. Who could be? And given Kreidler's shift in focus, they don't have as much to work with as did those iconic performers.

Even so, it's a classy, great looking affair. Scott Davis's set is an enviable upper-class San Francisco home right out of the pages of Sunset Magazine, and Samantha Jones's costumes are suitably chic as well. It remains an entertaining and well-meaning piece with a message that still has some bite, especially if one looks beneath the surface.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, through April 15, 2018, at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago IL. For tickets and further information, visit www.courttheatre.org or call 773-753-4472.


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