Sunday, January 15, 2017

Finding their hearts in San Francisco: IRT's 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' rests shakily over the deepest American fault line

Dr. Prentice tries to charm the Draytons' skeptical housekeeper-cook.
As soon as you take in the magnificence of Robert M. Koharchik's set on Indiana Repertory Theatre's OneAmerica Mainstage, you are tempted to believe nothing bad could ever happen there. It's lofty, well-appointed, light-addled, and as intricate and assertively angular as Piranesi's architectural engravings, yet without their hints of gloom. It's the home of Matt and Chris Drayton, a newspaper publisher and an art-gallery owner, representing fashionable success, with a priceless Bay view.

But the show is "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," whose central issue everyone has known for decades because of the movie:  the effect of an impending interracial marriage on two families, one black, one white. So you know better than to be fooled by the setting, especially since the year is 1967, and a half-century on, Americans suspect that the problems the show raises are nowhere near real-world resolution.

They are almost left unresolved in Todd Kreidler's adaptation of William Rose's screenplay.  The second act is loaded with emotionally seismic activity, heart-rending reaches and rebuffs across the gulf separating the principals. Until everyone sits down to dinner as the stage lights dim, the audience is encouraged to entertain doubts things will turn out well. These are related to the doubts Americans are justified in having about ever breaking bread all together at the same table, as Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned in 1963.

The revelations in the first act, while nerve-racking, have the feel of a comedy of manners. The audience is even permitted to feel the fun in the awkwardness of the situation. Nubile daughter Joanna has returned home from Hawaii, where her hospital
John and Joanna have a rare moment alone.
work acquainted her with Dr. John Prentice, a renowned medical researcher. They have fallen in love after 10 days of intense romance, and now their mainland families must be wrenched into a mood of appropriate celebration, before the couple jets off to Switzerland (where his career calls) to tie the knot.

James Baldwin wrote long ago that in American life status became a kind of substitute for identity. Yet he knew in the 1950s  as well as anyone knows today that identity has a way of coming around and biting status in the butt. That's what it does in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," with the white-liberal decency and privilege of Matt Drayton tested to the nth degree. His opposite number, John Prentice Sr., has had his status caught up in his son's upward mobility. What he has had to overcome as a postal worker exposes the unhealed wounds of his identity in a searing second-act confrontation with his son, whose status as an eminent physician is threatened by the identity he shares with his parents.

The older men's wives are also affected by the same forces, but they can exercise durable female stratagems for adjusting to life's disturbances. Mary Prentice, the doctor's mother, has an exasperated line to the effect that men become dumber as they get older and insensitive to the passions and energy that rule young people. That may be so; it's not for me to say. The women assuredly tip the balance here, especially in the adorable conversion of the housekeeper Tillie to the couple's cause.

Nonetheless, the play skirts the trap of becoming a set of arguments and perspectives on race in the second act. Director Skip Greer should be credited for having his cast fully receptive to the dramatic tension and its multiple ways of release. The near-speechless awkwardness of the second act's opening scene, with both households assembled in one place, was brilliant.

The play's central problems need to be propelled away from being an exposition of different attitudes. In reviewing George Bernard Shaw's work more than a century ago, the London critic Max Beerbohm noted that Shaw often constructs a glittering array of arguments for  his characters to embody, nudging his plays more toward Platonic dialogues than real theater.

Dr. Prentice bonds with his future father-in-law talking about the Louis-Schmeling fight.
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" fortunately has real people at its core, and this production never falters in letting them flower beyond their attitudes. At the center are Annie Munch as  bright-eyed Joanna, her idealism and willfulness ratcheted up believably, and Chik√© Johnson as Dr. Prentice, carrying manfully but vulnerably the burden of being a widower in addition to his others.

Craig Spidle played Matt Drayton as a scrupulous, anxious father stressed about a liberalism most at home in his editorials, less so in his personal life. As Chris, Brigitt Marcusfeld was a simpatico partner, significantly more flexible as a parent but sturdier about applying moral standards consistently.

Cleavant Derricks was explosive and poignant in the role of John Prentice Sr., and Nora Cole as Mary Prentice projected Southern gentility capable of being appropriately aroused. Lynda Gravatt made clear the reasons behind Tillie's initial hostility, comical but wounding in her skepticism, as well as when she was believably won over.

Constance Macy gave a snobbish breeziness to bigotry in a brief appearance as Chris' officious gallery employee, HiIlary St. George. Mark Goetzinger had a supporting role as someone at the other end of the spectrum, brimming with tolerance and sententious cheeriness as Monsignor Ryan. The other characters are all caught up in the conflict, and the uniform excellence of the cast showed how decent and redeemable each one is.

"It is not my impression that people wish to become worse," Baldwin wrote in the same address cited above. "They really wish to become better but very often do not know how."

Fear is at the root of the conflict that roils "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Baldwin cites the position of the Israelites in Egypt in a way that might apply to this play. They "really wished to get to the Promised Land but were afraid of the rigors of the journey; and, of course, before you embark on a journey, the terrors of whatever may overtake you on that journey live in the imagination and paralyze you."

Once the Draytons and the Prentices sit down to the dinner Tillie has prepared, they are ready to move on.


[Photos by Zach Rosing]