ESSEX — The Ivoryton Playhouse production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” running through May 12, stays staunchly faithful to its time and place — San Francisco, 1967 — with a stunning set designed by Daniel Nischan and perfectly period costumes by Elizabeth A. Saylor. But thanks to director Kathryn Markey’s mostly strong casting and staging, this story of an interracial couple facing their parents for the first time with news of their engagement feels more timely than we might hope.
Todd Kreidler’s 2013 script adds some welcome grit to its source, William Rose’s screenplay for the film of the same name; but it hews closely to the plot and characters. The wealthy, white Draytons — Matt, publisher of San Francisco’s The Guardian, and Christina, owner of a successful art gallery — find their staunchly liberal values challenged when their daughter, Joanna, unexpectedly returns from a medical internship engaged to Dr. John Prentice, a widower 11 years her senior who is African-American. And though this is clearly the Drayton family’s story, John’s mother and father are equally distressed by his choice, and the most powerful scene in the play is between Mr. Prentice and his son.
Director Markey has cast most of the roles so well that even if you are fan of the film, elements of this production will give you a fresh perspective. Tall and willowy Kaia Monroe, as Christina, is confident but warm, and her deep love for Johanna (Katelyn Nichols, just a bit too starry-eyed) is unmistakable. Monroe is responsible for several high points in the evening: one with her gallery employee, Hillary St. George (a chirpy and ultimately chilling Krista Lucas); and others in which she confronts her obstinate husband.
Kimberlee Monroe, as John’s mother, Mary Prentice, gives a nuanced, natural performance, moving from an apparently subservient wife, to an indomitable mother, to a woman who is brave enough to challenge the men as having forgotten the sexual passion (among other mysterious attractions) that draws lovers together and makes these “two young people need each other the way they need the air to breathe.”
Cedric Cannon, as John Prentice Sr., nearly takes over the play the moment we first hear his booming voice and sense the complicated pride, love and fear he feels for his son. And Marc D. Lyons, as Dr. John, charming and sincere throughout, is never better than in his scenes with Cannon: the two have remarkable chemistry. With everyone else, Lyons’ Dr. John must play the careful mediator, but with his own father, Lyons’ power can finally be unleashed.
R. Bruce Connelly, as the family friend Monsignor Ryan, gives the play some humor, and his sweetness in the role also gives us hope, not only for the younger generation, but for the older generation, too. Monsignor has some of the play’s wisest lines, and Connelly speaks with depth and seriousness, but also with a light touch: this is a wonderfully deft performance.
One wishes that Markey had directed Richarda Abrams (Tillie Banks, the Drayton’s maid of over 20 years), to give her character a less comical spin and instead express her suspicions of Dr. John with narrow-eyed steeliness. However, the main casting misstep is, unfortunately, the crucial one. Gordon Clapp, as Matt Drayton, simply isn’t convincing as the imposing voice of liberalism or as a desperately concerned father. One must assume it is the director’s choice that instead Clapp plays the role as befuddled, frustrated and stubborn, rather than as a forceful man in the grips of a serious battle — with himself and with those he loves best.
It’s unfortunate that the playwright chose to include, without noticeable editing, Matt’s very long final speech—which, in addition to unnecessarily recapping everything we’ve seen for the past hour and a half, claims that he, more than anyone else, has suffered during this disconcerting day. Of course the speech isn’t Clapp’s fault, but one would expect that the director and actor together would do everything they could to help Matt Drayton earn that speech and to soften its insistently patriarchal tone.
At the risk of repetition, Dan Nischan’s set cannot be praised more highly for both sheer beauty and ingenuity. And Markey’s production, despite her tendency to play up the comedy, presents us with some fine acting and much to discuss.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” will be playing through May 12. Tickets are available by calling the Ivoryton Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main St. in Ivoryton.