Posts Tagged ‘todd kreidler’

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
by Todd Kreidler
Based on the screenplay by William Rose
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 9, 2015

Richard Prioleau, Shannon Marie Sullivan Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Richard Prioleau, Shannon Marie Sullivan
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The 2015 theatre season in St. Louis coincidentally started on my birthday this year, which is wonderful because I can’t think of a more appropriate present.  I’ve been continually impressed with the quality and variety of live theatre in St. Louis, with Rep at the forefront of that scene. The company’s latest production is the stage adaptation of the well-known 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which was a much talked-about film in 1967 that deals with issues that are still relevant today, albeit the situations have changed somewhat.  Although it does appear dated at times, this is still a vibrant production with a very strong cast and a strong sense of time and place.

The time is 1967 and the place is a large, luxuriously appointed San Francisco home.  Here, art dealer Christina Drayton (Margaret Daly) prepares for an important meeting with a client, while her semi-retired newspaper editor husband Matt (Anderson Matthews) takes phone calls from the paper and prepares for an afternoon on the golf course.  While both express concern about the whereabouts of their daughter Joanna, sometimes called “Joey” (Shannon Marie Sullivan), neither is prepared for when she turns up suddenly with a big surprise.  That surprise is her new fiance, Dr. John Prentice, Jr. (Richard Prioleau).  Not only is the engagement a surprise, but the Draytons, who are white, are also not prepared for the fact that their daughter’s intended is a black man.  The Draytons are then forced to confront their own prejudices as they find the reality harder to deal with than their liberal values would have suggested.  There’s also another surprise when Joanna invites John’s parents (Leo Finnie and Perri Gaffney) to dinner without consulting John, who hasn’t informed them that his fiancee is white. The drama here is not simply in the issues, but in the personal interactions and sometimes surprising reactions of the various characters–also including the Draytons’ maid and friend Tillie (Inga Ballard), Christina’s bigoted and haughty assistant Hilary (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), and affable priest Monsignor Ryan (Joneal Joplin), who calls Matt out on his increasingly obvious hypocrasy.

This is one of those plays that would be very easy to write an academic essay about, considering the way the issues are dealt with and how the adaptation is dealt with and how it plays to an audience. This is a theatre review, so I’ll spare too much academic detail, although it’s interesting to watch this show–originally written and still set in the late 1960’s–through a modern lens.  There are character treatments to take issue with, as well as the obvious character-as-plot-device examples of Hilary and (to a lesser degree) Monsignor Ryan.  There was also an odd degree of audience reaction on opening night, in terms of disproportionate and applause in certain moments.  The issues that the play raises are still extremely relevant today, but they are sometimes treated in a manner that comes across as obviously of its era, and the gender stereotypes (such as the men being driven by anger and reason, and the women by emotion and empathy) can be jarring.

The real highlight of this production is its performances.  In a story that hinges on a deeply expressed love between the young couple, the chemistry is crucial, and Prioleau and Sullivan are thoroughly convincing and charming in their scenes together.  Prioleau’s performance (when playing opposite everyone but Sullivan) comes across as a bit stilted at first, although that may be an acting choice since his character is nervous and trying to impress his girlfriend’s parents.  His later scenes, especially after his parents arrive, are much more convincing and powerful. Matthews and Daly, in roles originated by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, are excellent in that they find their own characterizations and don’t try to copy their famous predecessors.  Matthews is especially strong as the conflicted Matt, portraying a convincing journey toward understanding.  Ballard, as Tillie is another standout, displaying a strong sense of caring and presence, and the always excellent Joplin makes a memorable impession as Monsignor Ryan.  There are also fine performances from Finnie and Gaffney as John’s bewildered parents, and by Townsend as the villainous Hilary.  Some of the strongest moments come toward the end of the play,when most of the characters are on stage together, reacting to one another with convincing energy and conviction.

The late ’60s atmosphere is also well effected by Kevin Depinet’s sumptuously detailed set, and Myra Colley-Lee’s colorful costumes.  The staging choices by directer Seth Gordon also add to the drama, using the large set to full effect.  It’s a convincing adaptation of a classic but somewhat simplistic film,  opening up the drama and making it a little more immediate and relatable to modern audiences.  It’s sure to provoke thought and conversation about how racial tensions were dealt with in the past compared to today, and of how far we still have to go as a society. It’s an intriguing start to the 2015 theatre season in St. Louis.

Anderson Matthews (center) and cast Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Anderson Matthews (center) and cast
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis



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