BY GAIL CHOOCHAN THE FREE LANCE-STAR
After the lighthearted “Nunsense” earlier this summer, Riverside is going for meatier fare with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
The local performing arts center brings this beloved melodrama to the main stage in a thoroughly satisfying production, under the wonderful direction of Anita Gonzalez. It’s a powerfully moving and inspiring story about interracial love and family. Todd Kriedler’s adaptation of the iconic film is laced with raw honesty, along with frequent touches of humor, as it navigates the deep and uncomfortable conversations that arise when Joanna Drayton brings home her black fiancé, John Prentice, to meet his parents and get their blessing. . Their union catches everyone off guard, from his liberal parents, to his mother’s horrible assistant Christina, to his family’s longtime housekeeper, not to mention John’s own parents.
While “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” sounds dated with its 1967 mentality, its story about race relations still resonates today. Hard to believe it was last month – in 2022 – that the House passed the Respecting Marriage Act, protecting the rights of interracial and same-sex marriages, in a bipartisan 267-157 vote. Come on, love is love, friends.
People also read…
The film, featuring a screenplay by William Rose, was groundbreaking in its depiction of an interracial romance between a white woman and a black man at a time when such a marriage could not exist in 17 states. Within a year of its release, the Supreme Court released its landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia involving the Caroline County couple and struck down anti-miscegenation laws.
Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the Stanley Kramer classic starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and that’s a good thing. It made it more exciting to see how this story unfolds in Riverside, without the constant comparisons to acting legends and the Oscar-winning film itself.
In the staging, the Drayton family’s spacious and inviting living room serves as the main setting for the play. Their well-appointed home, with envious views of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, was meticulously imagined by set designer Frank Foster and properties master/dresser Destiny Fauntleroy. And retro wardrobe pieces by Kyna Chilcot, lighting by Weston Corey and sound by J. Pat Bragg Jr. complete the atmosphere.
Riverside has recruited an exceptional cast, capable of directing Kriedler’s dense dialogue as well as handling the series’ dramatic and comedic undercurrents. The talents of all nine performers are maximized in this show, and even those late to the party – Crystal Henry Arful-Addoh and Neal Grace-Burks as John’s parents – get time to share their thoughts on the imminent marriage.
Marc D. Lyons makes a memorable Riverside debut as a handsome widowed doctor who has found love again. John is the picture of poise and sensitivity, but when pushed, audiences are made aware of a deeper emotional side to his character and gain insight into their own family issues. Rachel Pulley, who has appeared in several of the company’s productions, is a joy to see on stage with her character’s overflowing enthusiasm. The love shown during their dynamic exchanges is palpable, and you just want them to get their happily ever after.
Robert John Biedermann and Kathy Halenda take on the heavy roles of Matt and Christina Drayton. “I know the world as it really is there,” he says. As an overworked newspaper editor, Matt sees what happens every day and worries about what will happen to his daughter if this marriage goes through and what kind of life their children would have. Matt’s galvanizing words during a dramatic scene are one of the show’s most heartbreaking moments. And Halenda, an all-around Riverside favorite, is formidably associated with Biedermann as a stoic and fiercely supportive mother.
As the tough but caring housekeeper, Tillie, Nancy M. Crawley is lovely and she also gets the best one-liners. Tillie is very protective of Joanna, whom she watched grow up. She’s extremely suspicious about this new relationship, thinking John might be some kind of hustler, but like many characters on this show, there’s an opportunity to change hearts and minds.
And Alan Hoffman as Monsignor Ryan, and Matt’s golf buddy, brings a lot of levity to the tense situation and is seemingly the only one to embrace John immediately without reservation.
With heartfelt performances and a powerful message about love and family, this is “dinner” you want to sit down for.