By John Lyle Belden
The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents a beautiful production of the comic drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” by Todd Kreidler, based on the 1967 film’s screenplay by William Rose. And by “beautiful,” I also mean the set looks like a home you’d want to move into, with its free-standing fireplace, warm colors and comfortable yet stylish furniture. But the cast are not upstaged by these props; the actors deliver brilliant performances as IRT audiences have come to expect.
Annie Munch plays Joanna Drayton, the idealistic and optimistic daughter of a politically liberal newspaper publisher and his wife (Craig Spidle and Brigitt Markusfeld). She comes home unexpectedly, bringing her fiancé, accomplished physician Dr. John Prentice (Chike Johnson). But the bigger surprise, especially as it’s 1967 America, is that while the Draytons are white, Prentice is black.
This visit tests the beliefs, ethics, friendships and family ties of all. Mr. Drayton, writer of civil rights editorials, finds himself torn between hypocrisy and honest concern for his daughter. The black maid Matilda (Lynda Gravatt) is suspicious of this well-dressed, well-spoken man, as she has seen too many con men who look like him. Mrs. Drayton is concerned not only about her feelings, but also those of her society-conscious friend Hilary (Constance Macy). Family friend Monsignor Ryan (Mark Goetzinger), practically a gushing fan of Dr. Prentice, provides welcome optimism. And then, there’s the less than happy reaction of Prentice’s parents (Cleavant Derricks and Nora Cole).
As I noted, all performances are excellent, drawing you into their world, which doesn’t seem quite so out-of-date with this era’s continuing arguments about race and equality. No man can fill the film’s star Sidney Poitier’s shoes, so regard Johnson as his own charming interpretation of the young doctor finding an unlikely second chance at love, and enjoy.
The humor inherent in this play puts fresh meaning to the term “situation comedy.” The side-splitting moments appear among the heart-testing ones, as we get both in great measure. The discussions, debates and arguments inspire thought as well as laughter — and at the performance I saw, some spontaneous applause.
I couldn’t help but think that this play could also work with a more updated look, and Joanna bringing home instead the woman she has fallen in love with. But no matter how it’s staged, this story – this test of how we truly feel when issues literally come to our doorstep – is important to see and experience. The play runs through Feb. 4 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., next to Circle Centre; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.
John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.