Children have a way of calling out truths in their parents. They could be youngsters regurgitating ideas that they hear at home — things that parents would not be caught dead saying in public. Or they could be adult children whose surprising behavior surfaces deeply buried anxieties and beliefs, as happens palpably in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Playwright Todd Kreidler’s adaptation of the 1967 film had its gorgeous pre-blizzard opening Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The story about family crises brought on by the proposed marriage of a black doctor and his white girlfriend starred Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier onscreen. The funny and moving stage adaptation that opened under Timothy Bond’s exquisite direction at the Guthrie has levels of sophistication to match the film, plus additional wit and light. Kreidler, best known for being August Wilson’s dramaturge and confidante, has added dimensions to the story, fleshing out the black characters and finding ways to make this more than just a gaping look at folks who think they are oh-so-progressive but are still bigoted.
The Draytons are an upper-crust family who are proud to be at the vanguard of history. Patriarch Matt (David Manis) runs a newspaper that takes liberal positions on the issues of the day, including around racial oppression. His wife, Christina (Sally Wingert), collects art. Their black maid, Tillie (Regina Marie Williams), is as much doting family member as employee. Things come to a head when their daughter, Joanna (Maeve Coleen Moynihan), unexpectedly returns from an internship in Hawaii with news. After a whirlwind, 10-day romance with Dr. John Wade Prentice (JaBen Early), who is 11 years her senior, they’re going to get hitched.
Director Bond’s production is technically sublime. The design, from Matt Saunders’ set (which makes a statement without being ostentatious) to Lydia Tanji’s stylish period costumes and Dawn Chiang’s airy lighting, is elegant and eye-catching. Scott W. Edwards’ sound design, which includes interstitial music from the 1960s, puts us squarely in the milieu, starting with Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.”
The acting company is, to a person, superb. We expect greatness from consummate pros such as Wingert, who plays Christina with understanding and authority, and Williams, whose Tillie is the subtle boss of the household. Manis’ Matt Drayton has shades of Spencer Tracy, as least in his visage and gait. Greta Oglesby’s Mrs. Mary Prentice has few lines but they are potent ones.
The joy is that the acting company is so well-rounded. Newcomer Early has a magisterial mien as Dr. Prentice, injecting wry wit into his well-put-together character. He has a diametrical match in Moynihan, who finds Joanna’s passion and impetuousness, even if her character is as underwritten in the play as it was for film (there’s an inherent mismatch between the couple — one is a world-renowned doctor and author with a passion for infectious diseases; we don’t know much about the other’s achievements).
Actor Derrick Lee Weeden, who plays Dr. Prentice’s father, also shines in a fiery Wilsonian argument with his son. And Peter Thomson’s Monsignor Ryan is beneficent and wholly contemporary.
What makes this production of “Guess Who” a must-see is that it beautifully captures so much of what continues to roil the American soul. And it does so unmistakably but gently.
Besides, when was the last time you saw a play, not a musical, with not one but two showstoppers? The first features Wingert’s Christina making herself clear about what she stands for. And the second, well, it involves the heavenly harmonies of Williams’ Tillie and Oglesby’s Mrs. Prentice. Together, the duo brings a sweet, healing spirit to the Guthrie, one that floats over that beautiful stage like an angel hovering above families wrestling with all the burdens they carry.