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CSC’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” Still As Relevant as Ever

Review by Doug Iden of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Guess who’s coming to the Shakespeare Theater?  Based upon the groundbreaking 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the play tells the story of the interracial relationship between an esteemed black doctor and the white daughter of liberal parents.  The movie was the first to openly discuss racial relationships, show an interracial kiss and force liberal parents to face the potential hypocrisy of their lifelong beliefs.  On the one hand, the play seems dated but, unfortunately, the show is as germane as today’s headlines.

The entire play takes place in the elegant living/dining room of the Drayton’s home as they prepare for a special luncheon for a chief patron of Christina’s (Annie Fitzpatrick) art gallery.  Matt Drayton (Barry Mulholland), editor of a major liberal newspaper, is antsy to get to work but is reminded by Christina and Cook Tilly Banks (Burgess Byrd) to slow down the work load due to recent health restrictions.  Into the chaos, we are introduced to their daughter, Joanna (played by Caitlin McWethy) who surprises them with her black fiancé Dr. John Prentice (Darnell Pierre Benjamin).  At first, the parents assume that Joanna has a health problem but quickly realize that their daughter is in love with a black man.  Many awkward moments ensue as the Draytons grapple with their liberal racial views while dealing with their immediate reality.  Matt’s justification is that he foresees the difficulties of an interracial marriage but is privately shocked at what is happening. Adding to the tension is the open hostility which Tilly shows towards the doctor whom she assumes is “playing games” and not serious about the relationship.

Joanna, initially, appears to be very naïve, oblivious to the potential difficulties ahead.  McWethy imbues Joanna with the energy of young adult who is both in love and openingly awed by the doctor and his accomplishments.  Later, we discover that Joanna is fully aware of her situation and plans to persevere despite any opposition.

Moreover, there are some other revelations when we discover that Dr. Prentice has not notified his own parents of Joanna’s race and, to the surprise of everyone, Joanna has invited John’s parents to dinner.

The second act is explosive as John’s father, John Sr. (Ken Early) echoes Matt’s views by loudly objecting to the impending nuptials and demands that his son stop his entanglement.  Both sides square off in open hostility.  Friend Monsignor Ryan (Jim Hopkins) is the conscience of the piece as he tries to guide each side into reconciliation, despite spouting platitudes.

The entire cast is excellent as they navigate the emotional roller coaster without appearing to be heavy-handed and still manage to make the play relevant in today’s world.  Kudos to McWethy, Byrd, Benjamin and Mulholland who masterly delivers a second act speech which shows thoughtfulness and sincerity without being preachy and maudlin.  Director D. Lynn Meyers has added life and relevance to an old chestnut.

Shannon Moore’s scenic design shows a quietly elegant household of an upper middle class house including a balcony replete with enough cacti to make a botanical garden happy.  Amanda McGee’s costumes also subtlety point toward prosperous and professional characters.

So, make an appointment for “dinner” at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company theater running through February 17.  Their next presentation is Othello starting March 2.