Ivoryton Playhouse will flash back to 1967 for the stage version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” from Wednesday, April 24, through May 12. That year notably began with interracial marriage being illegal in 14 states.
The Stanley Kramer movie starred Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier as the couple looking for marriage blessings from their perplexed parents, played on the woman’s side by Spencer Tracy (in his last film) and Katharine Hepburn.
The play’s director Kathryn Markey, a Vermont native who has acted and taught in New York, said in a phone chat the other day that the way the film played in the culture in 1967 is different than now but the story has new value because of perspective.
“By looking at how these issues affected us farther back, it’s easier for us to see ‘oh, that’s the same now’ or ‘oh, that has radically changed,’” Markey said. “I also think it’s easier to look at ourselves when we have some kind of separating device, and in this case, it’s the device of time.”
Markey said the movie’s screenplay and direction were by white people and (aside from Poitier), the movie was driven by white stars, so “it’s about racial issues from the perspective of a white person.” But it’s also not simple.
The woman’s parents, the Draytons, are progressives from San Francisco. Newspaper publisher Matt Drayton, who will be played by Gordon Clapp at Ivoryton, has to confront his own buried racism “despite living a life of liberal, progressive, everyone-is-equal teaching (to) his daughter ... and staking his work reputation on it... and his belief system on it...”
Clapp, who played often-amusing Detective Greg Medavoy on “NYPD Blue” for 12 seasons, said in a phone chat from Vermont that his “Dinner” character is “very charming but he’s also a little bit of a bully. Liberals are often characterized as soft, but there are a lot of liberals who basically want to run the show and are intolerant in their own way. And it’s interesting he has this tunnel vision on this issue.”
Clapp, who said David Milch-written “NYPD Blue” also explored racism though it took awhile to get a black writer on staff, said the play “is as relevant as it’s ever been.”
The Draytons, said Markey, “live in a bed of white privilege; they’re white people that own the world. ... Because of that, they can say, ‘We have this belief system and we’re with you 100 percent.’ It’s only when they actually have to walk the walk... and a black man walks into your house and says ‘I’m your equal’ and then that white man has to say, ‘OK, do I really believe this?’ And it is not an easy journey for him.”
The Todd Kriedler-adapted script at Ivoryton, meanwhile, is also brisk and even witty at times, with “nice repartee” among the nine-person cast, said Markey. That includes the doctor’s parents, the monsignor, the Drayton mom’s snooty acquaintance Hilary and the Draytons’ black maid. The play gives us every combination of those characters in conversation — a revelation for Markey when she first directed the play in 2016 in Vermont.
Markey said the play is old-fashioned in the sense of being about “decent people speaking their minds... There’s something beautiful in the fact that all these people are trying their best to make the best of a difficult situation.”
Markey said “the entertainment value of this is: Relax and let’s have a good conversation here. I think it’s a very accessible play... I think it’s a play we see ourselves in.”
Also in the cast will be Kaia Monroe, who is an associate professor and chair of theatre at Southern Connecticut State University, playing the mother role originally played by Hepburn.