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Amazing Ensemble in CSC’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” Will Move You to Laughter and Tears

Review by Liz Eichler of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Have you ever examined a cherished formal sepia-toned photograph of your grandparents or great-grandparents, and noticed the family resemblance? It could be the shape of the jaw, the crook of the nose, but unmistakably your people. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, now playing at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, is both a tintype and a very modern exploration of struggling with who we are and what we stand for, presented by an amazing ensemble of professional performers, leading us to laughter and tears.

This is a very strong show, but foremost is the facile direction of D. Lynn Meyers and the stellar group she’s assembled to almost flawlessly tell this complicated story. These performers reveal their inner thoughts with just a look, a reaction, with perfect timing, elevating this play to the highest standards, allowing you to empathize with both hearty laughs and tears. In case you missed the 1967 film upon which Todd Kreidler’s play is based, it is the story of a medical student, Joanna (Caitlin McWethy), who comes home from her residency, surprising her parents with a new beau, Dr. John Prentice (Darnell Pierre Benjamin), an older, internationally accomplished but black-skinned doctor. This is the 1960’s. Despite his liberal stance, Joanna’s father, Matt, (Barry Mulholland) a newspaper editor, is taken aback, not only with the surprise of her unannounced homecoming, but with the new relationship, who it is with, and their intention to marry in two weeks.

“Our daughter is exactly the way we brought her up to be,” says mother Mary (Annie Fitzpatrick), as she struggles to find her footing in the situation. This is a momentous day, one which hits many parents, when they realize the dreams and hopes they have for their child clash with the choices that grown child has made for themselves. Both Joanna’s and John’s parents (Ken Early and Thursday Farrar), feel assaulted, “Surprise was my retirement party—this is an ambush,” says John’s father as he objects to the marriage as well, feeling the complications will hamper John’s career. The couple expects the parents to pivot, as if it were just a surface issue, but it’s complicated, and the choices are fight, flight, or acceptance. The couple wants an answer today, but it takes time for a parent’s reality and foresight to be replaced by their child’s powerful dreams and wishes.

There’s also the black and white thing. Tillie (Burgess Byrd), the maid, has her own vocal opinions of the matter, interjecting them for comic relief. You will love Byrd’s performance, but may question the writing. Matt finds a sounding board with his friend, the white-haired philosophical Monsignor Ryan (Jim Hopkins), who ultimately relies on a Beatle’s quote, “We can work it out.” Mary, however, discovers her friend Hilary (hilariously played by Kelly Mengelkoch) has an unseemly reaction to the visitor.

The clothing (Amanda McGee) and hair are lovely and perfectly period. The story is set in a San Francisco home on a hill, with a lovely parlor. Some great details are evident with the props, from bags for the artwork, to the table setting. As CSC is getting used to its new space, and more room on stage, they now have to think about more about front porches, and proportions of wall, window, and trim.

Down the street from Cincinnati Shakespeare is another show, “SuperTrue” at Know Theatre, making its world premiere, also with a theme of “love outside your tribe.” CSC is mounting “Othello” shortly. There is a difference of about 60 years between the two plays currently in Cincinnati, and over 400 years between all three plays whose theme is interracial marriages. With all, it’s not the larger philosophical issues that are the problem, it is the everyday, mundane problems all couples share that are hardest to live through.  Mazel Tov. Welcome to marriage.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” runs through February 17. (“Othello” opens March 2.) www.cincyshakes.com