"How do we keep it set in 1967 but not of 1967?"
That's the question playwright Todd Kreidler says he asked himself when adapting Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for the stage. The quote comes from an interview published in a program at the Guthrie Theater, where Kreidler's 2012 play is now on stage.
The question is particularly relevant at the Guthrie because Kreidler's expansion of the plot and themes in William Rose's screenplay comes on the heels of Danai Gurira's Familiar, a distinctly contemporary exploration of challenges surrounding an interracial marriage. Does Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a story so weathered that its very title has become a trope, still have fresh insights to yield?
Director Timothy Bond's impeccable production certainly leaves no doubt that we're in 1967. Christina (Sally Wingert) and Matt (David Manis) Drayton live in a San Francisco hilltop house represented by a Matt Saunders set that turns the Wurtele Thrust into a sumptuous evocation of what Johnson-era privilege looked like, architecturally speaking. If the Sharks and the Jets didn't already have dibs on this stage for the summer, the Guthrie could turn it into an Airbnb.
As in the film, the central drama revolves around a surprise announcement by the Draytons' white baby boomer daughter Joanna (Maeve Coleen Moynihan): She's fallen in love with an African-American man named John Prentice (JaBen Early), and the couple wish to marry. The surprise dinner guests multiply as John's parents (Greta Oglesby and Derrick Lee Weeden) enter the picture. Can they all sit down together and celebrate their status as a new American family?
Playgoers — like Joanna's own now-aged demographic, typically well-represented at the Guthrie — who might not have known quite what to make of Gurira's boisterous Zimbabwean family will settle into the comfortable rhythms of this story. The first half of Tuesday night's performance unfolded like a true melodrama, with cheers for the Irish priest (Peter Thomson) whose heart is as open as his bottle, jeers for Christina's bigoted coworker (Michelle Duffy), and laughs for the impatient quips by the Drayton's black maid Tillie (Regina Marie Williams).
Just when things are starting to feel a little too, well, 1967, the second act develops into a series of conversations that unpack the families' respective histories and highlight the Summer-of-Love generational tension. At the end, Dad Drayton gets a big heroic speech while Dad Prentice gets a quip about being mistaken for a robber. The audience roars. Tillie looks like she has some thoughts about all of this, but a maid can only say so much.
Bond hews true to the spirit of the story, with touchstone performances by Early (stepping into an iconic Sidney Poitier role with graceful confidence) and a determinedly earnest Moynihan. Their castmates don't miss a note, even those notes the script could have done without. Any time you have a chance to see Oglesby, Williams, and Wingert together onstage, you're well-advised to take it. All in all, it's hard to imagine a stronger production of this script.
In addition to Familiar, the show calls to mind another recent local show: Penumbra Theatre's 2017 production of Wedding Band. Though also written in the 1960s, Alice Childress' story of an interracial relationship in more dire circumstances, told from a black woman's point of view, didn't make it to Hollywood. The genius of her plays (including Trouble in Mind, well-staged by the Guthrie in 2016) is a reminder that there remain voices, from her era and our own, that urgently need to be heard.
IF YOU GO:
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Through May 27