It’s common these days to restage works, playing with roles and language, adding a musical score, changing the medium, and otherwise mining to find new truths and reach new audiences. On Broadway, Company’s Bobby recently became Bobbie. Ovid’s Metamorphoses at A Noise Within takes place in a swimming pool and contains contemporary references. Favorite ‘80s and ‘90s movies Tootsie, Pretty Woman and Mrs. Doubtfire are now stage musicals. Everything old is new again.
Maybe that’s why it feels almost jarring to see a faithful replica of a 50-year-old story. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, just opened at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, has been adapted from screen to stage by playwright Todd Kreidler. The iconic 1967 movie, starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, has no major plot changes or catchy tunes. This allows its character and plot choices to illustrate the way the topic of race was presented by progressives in the Sixties. It’s not all pretty, but it’s an interesting window.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is unquestionably a period piece, taking place just prior to the Loving v. Virginia decision that made interracial marriage legal in all 50 states. We view the story now through the lens of recent history. Given how complicated that history remains, it’s fascinating to have the context of what feels like an unadulterated window into those times. (And the Sixties-style costumes, by Michael Mullen, are great).
The Draytons are an upper-crust San Francisco couple whose 23-year-old daughter Joey (Mary Pumper) is returning from a vacation in Hawaii. Her father Matt (Brad Greenquist), a newspaper editor, and mother Christina (Lee Garlington), a gallery owner, have plenty of liberal cred despite their uniformed Black maid, Tillie (Vickilyn Reynolds).
All three are unhappy when Joey shows up with a new, Black fiancé, John Prentice (Vincent Washington II). John is an unimpeachable (and unrealistic) suitor on every level: an honorable, Ivy-educated and world-renowned doctor who’s financially secure, tall, dark and handsome. Unfortunately, one of those traits overshadows all the others.
While Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is primarily a drama, it’s not afraid to go for the laughs. Almost all cast members have at least a few comedic lines, but Reynolds as Tillie and Carl Paul Denk, Jr. as Monsignor Ryan bring the most comedy. They almost steal the show, all while their characters share valuable perspectives. Washington, who studied at Ruskin’s acting school, does a beautiful job portraying the practically perfect Prentice.
John’s parents, played by Dan Martin and Renn Woods, enter in the second act. Christina’s gallery employee Hilary is played by Mouchette van Helsdingen. All three add to the portrait with well-played and insightful performances. (Garlington and Van Helsdingen are talented Ruskin perennials.)
After successful runs at regional theaters around the country, this adaptation is making its Los Angeles debut more than two years later than originally planned. Perhaps it was the extra time to prepare, but the show is tight. Director Lita Gaithers Owens keeps the action moving, and the audience riveted.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner runs through July 17 at the Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave. at the Santa Monica Airport. There are (no performances on June 5, 17 or 18. Show times are 8:00pm Fridays and Saturdays; 2:00pm Sundays. Tickets are $35. Parking is free. Proof of vaccination and masking are required.