BY STEVE WONG
Flat Rock Playhouse has a knack for making the old seem new again, and its production of the classic Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is the perfect example of how a good story told well is timeless.
Two generations ago — 1967, in the midst of the 1960’s cultural revolution — the original film version hit the American movie houses to nearly universal acclaim, even in The South, where interracial relationships had been illegal. The nation was enduring race riots, and a successful movie about a black man and white woman pursuing marriage was unlikely. And yet, this romantic comedy was hugely successful, earning two Oscars.
Now, Flat Rock Playhouse has reignited that success on stage with a knockout setting by Scenic Designer Dennis C. Maulden, on-target costumes by Designer Ashli Crump, and a superb cast of professional actors. Director Reggie Law should be very proud as audiences have repeatedly given the show standing ovations.
In case you’re not familiar with the movie that starred Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, and Spencer Tracy, 23-year-old Joanna has just returned from Hawaii to her parent’s upper-class home in the hills of San Francisco, and she’s brought her fiancé, 37-year-old Dr. John Prentice — a worldly, polished, and professionally successful black physician. Despite being self-proclaimed open-minded liberals, the parents, Matt (a newspaper editor) and Christina (a gallerist), are shocked and dismayed. Their struggle to accept and embrace their daughter’s intended ebbs and flows with several heart-to-heart and heated conversations with each of the betrothed, each other, the Monsignor, and even the maid. And just when you think the situation could not get any pricklier, Joanna announces she has invited Dr. Prentice’s parents to dinner. They, too, are shocked and dismayed, and that is when race relations get as sticky as Tar Baby.
Emily Fink and Jade Arnold have the lead roles of Joanna and Dr. Prentice. Emily is the perfect adult daughter in a perfect adult mess. Her character is a product of the times: Truly liberal, truly open minded, truly in love. As an actress, she convincingly navigates the required emotions of conflicting love for Dr. Prentice and her parents. Jade’s character required him to play the standup guy to the hilt. Together, these actors portray undeniable love, faced with dire uncertainty by the very people they thought they could always depend on.
Peter Thomasson and Marcy McGuigan play Joanna’s parents, Matt and Christina. Here you have characters confronted by their own underlying prejudices and the sincere concern for their daughter’s future. Peter is excellent as a self-directed and successful man who would stand up for worldly equal rights but who is knocked down when a black man walks into his home. Marcy’s character seeks balance and understanding, and she has the grace to make taking a stand against her husband seem reasonable. Like the younger couple, these parents are truly in love and that is what eventually makes the difference in the outcome.
Dr. Prentice’s parents, John senior and Mary, are played by Marvin Bell and Janet Oliver, who come in late in the play but are a force to be reckoned with. Marvin does headstrong and unmoveable, as well as Mary does loving, tempered with reason and clear headedness. As black actors both have the talent to play characters of the turbulent times and parents of a highly successful son who just might be making the worst decision of life.
Robin MGee played the watchful and wise maid Matilda, and provided much of the essential comedy needed to make such a touchy subject less daunting. John Little had the role of Monsignor Ryan, Matt’s best friend, who could quickly and humorously boil down an ugly situation to simple common sense. And, Janie Bushway played Hillary St. George, Christina’s art gallery manager, a wolf-in-chic clothing and a character we were all glad to see handedly dismissed early on. Playing a bad character well takes talent.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a true romantic comedy about one of the most serious subjects the human race has tried to deal with since we came out of the caves — racism. The original screenplay was by William Rose, and Todd Kreidler scripted for the live stage. A lesser playhouse with lesser actors could have wrecked this timeless story, but Flat Rock Playhouse and company made seeing it for the first time a memorable pleasure. Even the senior folks in the audience, those who saw the movie in 1967, had to stand up for what is truly wonderful — just as we all must do when it comes to love in the face of adversity.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner continues through Sunday, Sept. 4. Tickets are available now at https://www.flatrockplayhouse.org/.