Arts & Culture

Review: ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ still a powerful experience

The engagement of their children (front row, Lando Hawkins, Chelsey Moore) unnerves parents (from left, Gina Austin, Tom Frye, Robert Barnes and Karla Burns) in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
The engagement of their children (front row, Lando Hawkins, Chelsey Moore) unnerves parents (from left, Gina Austin, Tom Frye, Robert Barnes and Karla Burns) in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Courtesy photo

Even though an interracial black-white couple isn’t the red-flag, traffic-stopping, heat-generating issue that it was when the 1967 Oscar-winning movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” came out, the new stage version of that screenplay still has the power to provoke and move.

And the production mounted by Forum Theatre as a regional premiere in a limited, pre-Broadway run is a beautiful, elegant, thoughtful and heart-touching experience that makes us reflect on how far we’ve come in the past half century – but also how far we still have to go.

The Oscar-winning screenplay by the late William Rose has been reworked for live performance by Pittsburgh playwright Todd Kreidler, and it preserves the literate sprightliness of his sophisticated banter among educated people. But Rose and Kreidler never allow those elegant, often amusing words to gloss over deeply held, sometimes raw emotions.

Director Mark Mannette brilliantly stages this production in a 360-degree in-the-round format that puts the performers in the center where every gesture, nuance and tic is clearly visible. The performers are as exposed as if under a microscope, and Mannette’s cast is powerfully up to the task.

Tom Frye and Gina Austin play the bride’s white liberal parents, Matt and Christina Drayton, who have raised their daughter to believe that everyone is just as good as she. Their altruistic, abstract beliefs are suddenly tested when she brings home a black fiance.

Robert Barnes and Karla Burns play the groom’s black traditionalist, don’t-rock-the-boat parents, John Sr. and Mary Prentice, who have worked hard all their lives to give their son every educational and social advantage to become a doctor. They are fearful of their son becoming a target and losing everything he’s worked for.

And at the heart – literally – are Lando Hawkins and Chelsea Moore as the very-much-in-love couple, Dr. John Prentice Jr. and Joanna Drayton. She is a romantic optimist who sees no problems. He knows the societal dangers, but is willing to endure them for love.

Barnes and Hawkins as father and son have magnificent booming baritone voices that sound almost like music even while they argue. Burns as the groom’s mother has a weary but patient and reassuring wisdom in her voice. Austin as the bride’s mother has an expressive face that subtly but clearly reveals her inner feelings. Moore as the bride-to-be has a delightfully buoyant attitude that masks a determined steel spine. And Frye, with curmudgeonly, father-knows-best posturing that doesn’t fool his wife and daughter one bit, epitomizes worried, paternal gravitas.

If there is one flaw, it is that the script still allows the bride’s father (written specifically to showcase Spencer Tracy in the movie) to pontificate a little too long in the finale, as if only the white male has the most claim to the final answer.

Director Mannette keeps the action flowing smoothly, naturally and effortlessly so that audiences on all sides experience all shades of the characters. Movements are purposeful rather than random, moving from one area to another as conversations change, like groups at a party. The actors themselves may be only inches away from us, but they never seem aware that we are watching them intently. They create and live in their own, completely realized little world.

In smaller but key turns are Sheila Kinnard as Tillie, the Draytons’ feisty black maid who is hyper-protective of the bride because she helped raise her; Gilbert Pearce as Monsignor Ryan, a genial, seemingly innocuous family friend who becomes the couple’s staunchest ally; and Stephanie Hug as Hilary, a social-climbing, glad-handing closet bigot who forces the bride’s mother to face her true feelings.

The ambitious and elegantly furnished 360-degree set – living room with adjoining dining room and terrace – is by Aaron Profit. The equally ambitious lighting by Tyler Lessin pools to define rooms and moods, and keeps actors’ faces lit while not blinding audience members in cross-light. Voices are natural rather than amplified, but in such an intimate setting, they can be readily heard and understood.

Even though 2015 is still so new, this production is a sure bet to be on many local theatergoers’ “best” list.

If you go

‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’

What: Regional premiere of a new stage adaptation of the 1967 Oscar-winning screenplay about white and black parents reacting to their children’s plans to marry

Where: Forum Theatre at Scottish Rite Center, 332 E. First St.

Additional performances: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $23 Saturday matinee and both Sunday shows; $25 for Saturday evening. There is an optional catered meal before each show for $15 extra (12:30 p.m. matinees, 6:30 p.m. evenings). Call 316-618-0444 or visit www.forumwichita.com.

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