Saturday, January 31, 2015

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

This weekend the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is ending a very successful run of Todd Kreidler's play "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" based on the screenplay for the 1967 Academy Award winning film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner by William Rose which starred Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Syndey Poitier. I meant to write about it right after I saw it a couple of weeks ago but time got away from me.

As we saw a couple of years ago when NBC aired the stage version of "The Sound of Music" it's hard to stage a play that audiences know primarily from a very successful movie.  The audience might object when scenes aren't exactly the same as the film scenes and the audience, who can watch a film performance over and over in this day of digital rentals, can object if the stage actors interpret roles even slightly differently than the screen actors. But in this case the Rep pulled it off very well.

For those who have never seen the film, the story takes place in a single day at the home of a wealthy white San Francisco couple, Matt and Christina Drayton.  He is the editor of a newspaper with a liberal slant and she is the owner of an art gallery.  Their only daughter JoAnna (Joey) comes home from a trip to Hawaii and brings a surprise - a fiance named John Prentice Jr.   Prentice is a doctor with a worldwide reputation.  But the real surprise to the white couple is that their daughter's new fiance is black.  They also eventually meet Dr. Prentice's parents who Joey, as a further surprise, invites to dinner.

Although Matt and Christina have brought Joey up to believe all people are equal, no matter the color of their skin, they are taken aback that she intends to marry Dr. Prentice, perfect though he is in all ways.  Matt, especially, is convinced that the couple is making a mistake in marrying because the world is not ready for an interracial couple and they can expect to receive abuse.  The family's long time black maid, "Tillie", who feels that Joey is as much her daughter as the Drayton's, is also against the marriage and warns Dr. Prentice off.  Finally, Prentice's parents are also completely taken aback and his father is dead set against the marriage.

 The 1967 film, coming in the midst of the civil rights movement, was very popular.  The staged version here in St. Louis, which because of Ferguson, has become the epicenter for a new civil rights movement, also proved popular.  Although this production was planned long before Ferguson happened, the Rep took advantage of the additional interest by publishing a study guide, a play guide and a library resource list on their website. They also had a display in the theater lobby highlighting mixed race couples who live in the area. 

After seeing the play, I rented the film.  It had been at least 20 years (or more!) since I had seen it.  I wanted to compare the stage adaptation to the original screenplay.  A film can open up locations, of course, in a way that a play cannot.  We see San Francisco, the airport, the streets, a drive in burger/soda shop, the art gallery that Christina owns.  But it mostly takes place in Matt and Christina's beautiful home overlooking San Francisco bay.  The Rep's three-quarter jut stage does not, of course, accommodate many changing sets but is tailor made for a one set play.  The set design by Kevin Depenit is beautiful.  The formal dining room in the rear, the California casual living room up stage and, along the edge of the stage, slightly lower than the living room, the "terrace".   We never see the art gallery so, instead, Christina's assistant Hilary shows up at the house with pieces of art.  The "big client" that Christina is to have lunch with is, in the stage version, supposed to come for lunch at the house.  This gives Tillie time, on stage, to interact with not only Christina and Matt but with Hilary and let's us learn that she is opinionated.  We like her and trust her opinions.

I wondered if I would be able to forget Tracey, Hepburn and Poitier's performances enough to enjoy the play.  Margaret Daly and, perennial Rep favorite, Anderson Matthews played the roles differently but I soon was swept away by their performances.  I completely believed in them and the movie versions left my mind.  Richard Prioleau, as John Prentice, was also very good but I never could quite get Syndey Poitier out of my mind.  I think he was somewhat hampered by the actress who played Joey.

Joey is a difficult part, especially in 2015 when upper class white women just don't get married young as much as they did in the 1960's and when getting married to a man they just met is hard to fathom.  I couldn't remember who played Joey in the movie (it was Katherine Hepburn's niece, Katherine Houghton) so I wasn't comparing Shannon Marie Sullivan's performance to anyone's.  I did think her portrayal was the weakest in the show - through much of it I kept thinking "You are far too young to get married to anyone."  In fact, I kept thinking that Matt Drayton shouldn't even have to focus on whether he was ok with his daughter marrying Dr. Prentice particularly, but just focus on the fact that she shouldn't get married AT ALL yet.  I wondered if I would feel the same way re-watching the movie.  I did, but only slightly.  Only on principal, not based on the performances. I completely bought that "movie Joey" knew what she was doing and was completely in love with this man in an adult way whereas I thought Sullivan's Joey seemed young, flighty and possibly in love with the idea of love.

When I went back to watch the film I wondered if Sydney Poitier would live up to my memory of him from watching the film 20+ years ago.  And he did.  Wow, did he.  He really was fabulous.  It is a subtle performance that includes his body language and his eyes.  Of course, these things are easier to do on film than on stage.  But not every screen actor could carry it off the way Poitier did.  And watching Poitier and Houghton interact in the film, especially after seeing the interaction between the characters in the play, I was struck by how well Poitier and Houghton conveyed a couple in love by the little touches that passed between them and the way their eyes would meet.  It was all very natural - but, again, naturalness is easier to catch on film than it is to portray on stage.

The other supporting players in the stage version were very good. All in all it was an enjoyable and thought provoking evening of theater.  What is sad is that while so much has changed, legally,  so little has changed socially - at least so little has changed here in St. Louis.  A white liberal family today, one who believes that all people are equal no matter the color of their skin, probably would still be concerned if a family member was to marry someone of another race -- because they know that society is still going to make it hard on them.