When "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" debuted 50 years ago, it was the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Interracial marriage was still illegal in 16 states, and the subject made a lot of people uncomfortable. Like a true artist, filmmaker Stanley Kramer saw a chance to begin a conversation, so he assembled an all-star cast (led by longtime onscreen duo Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) and created a lasting, Academy Award-winning film that explored what might happen if the daughter of a liberal white couple brought her black fiancé home to meet the family.
Geva Theatre Center, through March 12, is staging "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," adapted by Todd Kreidler based on William Rose's 1967 screenplay. It's the third Wilson Stage production this season, and is co-produced with Indiana Repertory Theatre (the show played there from January 10 through February 4).
The plot is centered on the Drayton family, San Francisco residents and avid supporters of progressive worldviews. Matthew, the patriarch, is a top editor with The Guardian, while his wife, Christina, runs an art gallery that relies on wealthy patrons. She's planning a luncheon at her home for one such patron when the couple's daughter, Joanna, arrives home unexpectedly from Hawaii. While working as a nurse there, Joanna met the love of her life, Dr. John Prentice Jr. He's a little older than she is, but he's accomplished. And there's one other small detail: he's black. The Draytons are shocked and chagrined, but things really start to pick up when Joanna reveals she's invited another set of guests to dinner as well.
Skip Greer, who audiences may remember as Atticus Finch in last year's "To Kill a Mockingbird," deftly directs the nine-person cast. Greer seems to thrive in the realm of classics returned to relevance for modern audiences, and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is no exception. "To Kill a Mockingbird" actors Nora Cole and Brigitt Markusfeld are in this show as well.
While the ensemble as a whole is quite strong, some of the actors take a little time to ease into their characters. Markusfeld (portraying Christina Drayton) and Constance Macy (Mrs. Drayton's gallery manager, Hilary St. George) have a rather wooden exchange in the beginning of the show, but Lynda Gravatt (housekeeper Matilda "Tilly" Binks) seems to guide both her cast mates and the audience back to the storyline with her expert side-eye and sassy comic relief. Craig Spidle (Matthew Drayton) is the embodiment of a crusty newspaperman who adores his wife and daughter; the back-and-forth between Spidle and Markusfeld provides some of the best moments in the show. Later on, Markusfeld is particularly gripping as the protective mother.
Chelsea Morgan (Joanna Drayton), a last-minute addition in the role, is bewitching as the idealistic 25-year-old daughter. Opposite her is Chike Johnson (Dr. John Prentice Jr.) with a handsome, charming presence onstage. During the scene with his father, John Prentice Sr. -- portrayed by Cleavant Derricks -- the emotional stakes of the show are raised. Derricks holds his own, and as Mary Prentice, the matriarch of the family, Nora Cole is an elegant portrait of a mother caught between her son and her husband. Rounding out the cast is Mark Goetzinger (Monsignor Ryan, a Catholic priest and friend to the Draytons), whose Irish lilt and comfort onstage lends even more comedic relief to a weighty few hours. (Monsignor and Tilly should really have their own spinoff show.)
The scenic design by Robert Koharchik is a thing of beauty. When audience members entered the theater, there were gasps of awe as they realized the entire interior of a midcentury modern home has been built on Geva's stage, complete with cacti and succulents on the patio and Eames-inspired furniture. The set is so believable, coupled with luscious costume design by B. Modern, that it makes the story even more engrossing. Lighting design by Kendall Smith is equally impressive, as it's not only a stage but a partial house that requires illumination.
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is a show that feels uncannily and uncomfortably relevant in the light of current events (or even alongside Jordan Peele's recent horror film "Get Out"), and Geva's production is a masterpiece. As soon as the lights went down on Thursday's performance, a standing ovation began. By the time the cast was assembled for curtain call, the entire audience was standing. The response speaks to the talent onstage, of course -- but it also to the power of the show.