When the controversial film GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER was released in December 1967, only six months had elapsed since miscegenation was illegal in 17 Southern states. The movie starred Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and was the first romantic comedy/drama produced and directed by famed Stanley Kramer. Surprisingly, the film became an overnight sensation – even in the South – and won Oscars for William Rose for Best Original Screenplay and Katherine Hepburn for Best Actress – amid multiple nominations in the U.S. and internationally. This was to be the last film roles for Tracy, who died only 17 days after the motion picture was released.
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER puts a progressive white couple on the spot when their daughter unexpectedly shows up at her parents’ home with her fiancé, a debonair, brilliant, and relatively conservative older widowed physician – who just happens to be black. Blindsided by the couple’s whirlwind ten-day courtship – and by Dr. John Prentice (Vincent Washington), whose darker complexion remains at the forefront of their thoughts, newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Brad Greenquist) and his wife Christina (Lee Garlington) find that their liberal views are put to the test. The basic question? Whether their lifelong and freely verbalized, open-minded opinions about race will transfer to the real-life dilemma posed by their daughter Joanna (Mary Pumper) and her future husband. And, for that matter, how the good doctor’s parents will deal with the couple’s imminent marriage. Clearly, John Prentice Sr. (Dan Martin) and his wife Mary (Renn Woods) have their own strong feelings about the proposed merger. Even the Drayton’s black maid Tillie (Vickilyn Reynolds) throws in her own suspicious two-cents about John’s motives.
Adapted from William Rose’s screenplay, playwright Todd Kreidler has done a beautiful job of seamlessly transferring a motion picture to the stage. Director Lita Gaithers Owens helms the production with a compassionate eye to the conundrum involved – but also with the quick wit needed to keep the rom-com briskly moving along. Kudos to the actors who “get it” and help the audience appreciate the tension punctuating the love inherent in each scene. This is a tale with no easy answers – and the performers leave space for the audience to grapple with the difficult issues. Insight and humor co-exist and lend this story the thought and intensity it deserves. Congratulations are also in order for the creative team. John Iacovelli’s scenic design brings us all back to the 1960s, as do Edward Salas’ lighting and sound design and Michael Mullen’s costumes. Songs of the era will evoke some interesting memories for some audience members.
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER is as timely today as it was over 50 years ago. Today’s society is still struggling with some of the same issues and problems. This is a fascinating play which offers some intriguing and entertaining views about a culture of prejudice which should have disappeared long ago. That it has not should lead to some thought-provoking questions which will continue after the curtain falls.
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER runs through August 21, 2022 with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue (in the Santa Monica Airport), Santa Monica, CA 90405. Tickets are $35 (seniors, students, and Guild members $30). For information and reservations, call 310-397-3244 or go online.