When the play I hope to write opens on Broadway, I want Mary Beth Fisher in the lead — just in case my script isn’t that good. With Fisher mining my script for nuggets, the audience might not notice what’s missing, stuff like fresh dialog. Unfortunately, even with Fisher in a key role and the rest of the cast doing their best, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner fails to launch at Court Theatre. Like putting lipstick on a pig, high production values can only go so far.
My hopes were up. Court Theatre consistently offers some of Chicago’s best productions, and both director Marti Lyons and associate director Wardell Julius Clark have shaped provocative material in the past. Before the action begins, the audience can feast on Scott Davis’s chic white on white (even the cacti!) set, a 1960s San Francisco aerie, home to liberal Guardian publisher Matt Drayton (Tim Hopper) and art gallery owner Christina Drayton (the aforementioned Fisher). So far so, so good. Lee Fiskness’s lighting design spins background clouds into cotton candy.
Enter the Draytons’ maid, Tillie (Sydney Charles, who at times overplays her role in an attempt to milk something out of it — one can hardly blame her — but whose lovely singing voice provides a high point of the production). Then Tillie speaks. Typically, playwrights save their best lines for the opening to get the audience hooked, but it seems that writer Todd Kreidler was going for something more oblique. That sideways approach might have provided an interesting path to the final destination, if only that destination had been worth the trip.
In a program note, the playwright explained why he based his play, which premiered in 2012 at the True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, on the 1967 film classic of the same name, with a screenplay by William Rose and starring Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn. “First of all, it’s a cultural touchstone…. Approaching it today I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about and engage in the attitudes of 1967, but in a way that was for the 21st century.” Kreidler’s premise is promising, but his execution disappoints. That fresh take never materializes.
What remains hardly differs from what Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner offered in 1967 — when it was indeed covering fresh ground. The plot remains the same: the Draytons’ thoughtful and beautiful 23-year-old daughter Joanna (Bryce Gangel looks the part) returns from 10 days in Hawaii with a brilliant and handsome fiancé in tow, Dr. John Prentice (the theatrically accomplished Michael Aaron Pogue). The only fly in the ointment, other than the precipitousness of the romance, is that Dr. Prentice is black. At the time the film was made, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states, a situation that changed before the film was released when the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia.
Rounding out the cast of characters at Court Theatre are Dr. Prentice’s parents, played with dignity by Jacqueline Williams and Dexter Zollicoffer, gallery assistant Hilary St. George (Rachel Sledd) and the warmhearted and hard-drinking Monsignor Ryan (Dan Waller).
Costumes by Samantha Jones provide eye candy when the script leaves little else to chew on. Indeed, a costume change is one of the most provocative moments in the production. When Tillie sheds her maid’s apparel for home wear, the audience views her character in a new way. No longer a wage slave, she can cut loose and be herself.
In conjunction with the production, Court Theatre is offering a film series that includes the 1967 original and the 2016 film Loving as well Jordan Peele’s 2017 cult thriller Get Out. The latter provides the fresh spin on contemporary racism that Kreidler’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner promised.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Through April 15, 2018
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago (free garage parking for evening performances)
Tickets $44-$74 (student discounts available) at Court Theatre or (773) 753-4472
Photos: Michael Brosilow