The following review is based on the Friday, July 22nd performance when understudies Paul Linke and Iona Morris took on the roles of Matt Drayton and Mary Prentice in lieu of Brad Greenquist and Renn Woods.
Fifty-five years ago, the transformative film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was released before going on to win two Academy Awards and earning sweeping acclaim. More importantly, the film, and its profound message about the acceptance of mixed couples, came during a politically relevant time when the controversy surrounding it began to finally lose its stigma, assisted by a landmark Supreme Court decision (Loving v. Virginia) that overturned bans on interracial marriage.
Ruskin Group Theatre’s production of the stage play Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by Todd Kreidler, and directed by Lita Gaithers Owens, is a marvelous tip of the hat to the 1967 watershed masterpiece while at the same time encouraging additional discussion about a topic that still invites unwanted prejudice and has yet to be fully resolved. Furthermore, the play, which has been extended through August 21st by popular demand, lives up to the accolades it has earned for being one of Southern California’s best shows of the year.
The conflict of the story begins when Joanna “Joey” Drayton returns to her parents’ home from Hawaii with a man whom she intends to marry after only a 10-day romance. His name is Dr. John Prentice, an accomplished doctor and pioneer of tropical medicine. Sadly, the only hurdle is the black color of his skin. Joey’s parents, Matt Drayton, a newspaper editor, and Christina Drayton, a gallery owner, perceive of themselves as tolerant liberals, but when faced with their ideals, exhibit discomfort and waver. In the company of the Draytons is their longtime housekeeper Matilda “Tillie” Binks, an African American woman from Georgia, who is suspicious of the suddenness of the arrangement. Not to mention, Dr. Prentice’s parents, Mary and John Sr., who arrive in response to a surprising invite to the Draytons’ home, are also quite leery of the racial intermixing of their families, which isn’t helped by the bombshell news being abruptly placed in their laps.
Alongside Director Owens, Artistic Director/Producer John Ruskin, Managing Director/Producer Michael R. Myers, Scenic Designer John Iacovelli, Lighting/Sound Designer Edward Salas, and Costume Designer Michael Mullen have done a fabulous job in setting the stage for this important piece of work, framing it in such a way that allows for an uninterrupted immersion inside the appropriately intimate theatre space. As the furniture and pastel colors of the set indicate, we are indeed in the 60s, but there is also a hint of modernism that beckons the next decade and its characters.
The performances evoke a powerful naturalism, beginning with Lee Garlington’s Christina Drayton, who becomes the initial focus in the opening scene when she interacts with her character’s gallery employee, Hilary St. George, played by Mouchette van Helsdingen, who leaves a lasting impression despite leaving halfway into Act I. Garlington is highly effective at conveying the subtle, but resolute, changes in Christina’s demeanor toward the near ultimatum she and her husband Matt, portrayed by Paul Linke, are presented with by Mary Pumper’s Joanna Drayton and Vincent Washington’s Dr. Prentice. Ultimately, Dr. Prentice will not agree to marry Joanna unless he has her parents’ blessing; otherwise, it would be too insurmountable of a burden to bear on top of the judgment the couple is guaranteed to experience. This dilemma is worrying for the increasingly overwrought Matt Drayton who needs more time to process and doesn’t see the point of rushing, which is difficult to pragmatically argue against. From his point of view, he’s only looking out for the welfare of his daughter in contrast to his wife Christina who doesn’t draw a line between Joanna’s fulfillment and her welfare; they are one and the same. Linke brings striking passion and layers of nuance to his depiction of Matt by channeling emotions ranging from an undercurrent of distress, followed by paranoia, unabashed indignation, and finally an evolved level-headedness. When Linke, as Matt, recaps the tumultuousness of the night’s events, the audience is fully enthralled.
At the center of attention in the play are Joanna and Dr. Prentice. While they share obvious differences, they are bound by similar, untimely tragedies: the former lost her brother Michael, and the latter lost his wife and young son in an accident. Together they are cognizant of the ramifications of their relationship and how resiliently they’ll have to fight for their future, even if it means going against their parents’ wishes. Pumper, for instance, immediately gets across Joanna’s anxiety in delivering the news to her parents, as well as how much she truly loves her character’s beau, highlighted by memorable monologues in which she underscores the paramountcy of a “round-table discourse” and rebuts the notion of “waiting another 10 days” because time is, after all, only relative. Washington, too, is magnificent at balancing the erudition and formalized dignity of Dr. Prentice with a courageous forthrightness that evinces itself vis-à-vis exchanges with not only Linke’s Matt, but especially his father in the play, John Prentice Sr., depicted by Dan Martin.
Although Martin is only in Act II, he has perhaps the most significant role in igniting a discordance that only started out as an annoyance. The firepower that Martin brings, substantiated by his own character’s backstory and historical trauma in dealing with white folk, is undeniable. In a sense, compared with Matt Drayton’s reasons, Prentice Sr.’s opposition toward his son’s impending marriage to a white woman resonates with more righteousness because it is grounded in a realism that he experienced first-hand. The electrically charged back-and-forth that Sr. has with his son is the highlight of the production as it emphasizes a generational divide between an experiential justification versus a more contemporaneously hopeful, if not idealistic outlook (e.g., when Dr. Prentice resoundingly tells his father, “You think of yourself as a colored man; I see myself as a man”). Iona Morris, moreover, deserves plaudits for imbuing Sr.’s wife, Mary Prentice, with a highly believable earnestness that sees its own emotional shift in conviction.
Last, but not least, are Vickilyn Reynolds as “Tillie” Binks and Paul Denk as Matt’s close friend, Monsignor Ryan. Reynolds infuses the play with much liveliness and a likability that is sustained even when her character doubts the honest intentions of Dr. Prentice. Denk is additionally invaluable in personifying a role that mirrors a more enlightened and open-minded sensibility reminiscent of those today who have grown their virtues.
Overall, Ruskin Group Theatre’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is highly recommended for being more than just a production about love conquering all. It examines complex issues, uncomfortable dynamics, and takes a long, hard look at socially programmed biases that contaminate and proliferate even in one’s own home, sometimes to the surprise of those who promised themselves that it would never happen.
Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405. Show dates are on 8:00 pm Fridays and Saturdays; 2:00 pm on Sundays. There will be no performances between August 5th and the 14th.
For more information on Ruskin Group Theatre’s production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and to purchase tickets, please visit this link