Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule (updated)


Justin Hosten and Rachael Kaplan
Photo courtesy of Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
You'd think that in the last 50 years we would have made some major progress as a country when it comes to race relations. Yet, seeing the stage adaptation of the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner showed me that while much has changed in our society since the film premiered, there are still many things unresolved in a country where racially charged language, tweets and attacks are the daily norm. The play, like the film, focuses on what happens when the daughter of a white progressive family surprises her parents by bringing home her fiancé, who is a black man. To say her liberal parents aren't exactly on board with the idea would be an understatement. Don Bluth Front Row Theatre presents a perfectly cast and beautifully directed production of this still timely, thought-provoking story.

Adapted by Todd Kreidler from William Rose's Academy Award winning original screenplay, the play follows the main plot of the film with a few small additions and changes that make it work for a theatrical setting. Set in 1967, the play takes place in the San Francisco home of Matt and Christina Drayton. Their daughter Joanna, who has been working in Hawaii as a hospital intern, surprises her parents a week earlier than planned. She has brought home with her Dr. John Prentice, Jr., a successful medical researcher she recently met at the hospital, and proceeds to tell her parents that they've fallen in love and are planning to marry. This stuns her parents, as John is black, and the situation makes them question their liberal views. While the headstrong Joanna doesn't think her parents will have an issue with their engagement, John realizes that if they don't have their approval, they don't stand a chance of surviving. When Joanne surprises the group by also inviting John's parents to dinner, it only adds to the tension. As racial and generational differences and views come to light, one question keeps coming up that challenges them all: if you support a mixed-race couple when it's not someone you know, how can you not approve of it when it's someone in your own family?

Director Cheryl Schaar has found a gifted cast to tackle this unfortunately still relevant topic. Schaar and cast instill the characters with small details, pertinent glances, well timed gestures, and silent looks that bring the script and characters vibrantly to life. Everyone gets a few lines of well-written dialogue or a well-crafted monologue to flesh out their character's thoughts and feelings and all of these moments are beautifully done. It's easy to see how Rose won the Oscar for his screenplay as most of these moments are taken right from his script.

As Matt and Christina, Lee Cooley and Toni Kallen present characters with a wide range of emotions. These range from feelings of shock, confusion, surprise, and being blindsided when they first meet John to then doubting and questioning their own beliefs and values. Both actors expertly navigate their way through these very changing characters and create beautiful and realistic portrayals. Rachael Kaplan infuses Joanna with determination and optimism. We clearly see that she's made up her mind, is in love, and doesn't understand why the people she loves don't support her decisions. As John, Justin Hosten does a great job in depicting the wisest member of the group, a very intelligent man who is a realist and understands exactly what he and Joanna are up against.

In supporting parts, Nathan Alfred and Larissa Brewington do beautiful work as John's parents. Each gets a solo moment to shine, with Alfred's emotional outburst an eruption of feelings and Brewington's monologue receiving a quiet and direct delivery. While they aren't exceptionally large parts, Alfred and Brewington's performances are so well thought out that they make their characters incredibly believable. As Tillie, who has been the Draytons maid for more than 20 years, Tenea Hudson is simply exceptional. Tillie is caring and attentive yet feisty and firm in her views and she also gets some of the best comical lines in the play, which Hudson knows exactly how to deliver to get big laughs. We also understand from Hudson's warm portrayal why Tillie has issues with the engagement, as she is clearly only looking out for Joanna's best interests. In smaller roles, Malcolm Hooper is charming as the Monsignor who approves of Joanne and John's relationship and pushes Matt to question his initial reactions to it, and Janis Webb has a nice turn as a bigoted woman who works for Christina.

Cheryl Schaar's staging works very well for this somewhat talkative play. She uses the entrances into the space to good effect and moves the action around naturally so that no one, on all three sides of the stage, ever feels left out from an actor's reactions or expressions. The intimacy of the small Don Bluth stage really feels like the inside the Drayton house. Corinne Hawkins' costumes evoke the period and status of the characters, while Schaar and Nathan Alfred's set design uses just a few small pieces of furniture and a lovely backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge to firmly set the locale.

While it's fairly clear from the beginning of the piece that love will prevail, there is enough insight, humor and heart in this wonderful production of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to provoke conversations long after the play is over.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, through September 28, 2019, at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, 8670 E. Shea Boulevard, Suite 103, Scottsdale AZ. For more information on this production or to order tickets, go to www.donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com or call 480-314-0841.

Directed by Cheryl Schaar
Scenic Design: Cheryl Schaar and Nathan Alfred
Lighting Designer: Cheryl Schaar and Kristen Peterson
Sound Designer: Cheryl Schaar, Roger McKay and Cody Duncan
Costumes: Corinne Hawkins

Cast: (in order of appearance)
Matilda "Tillie" Binks: Tenea Hudson
Hillary St. George: Janis Webb
Christina Drayton: Toni Kallen
Matt Drayton: Lee Cooley
Joanna Drayton: Rachael Kaplan
Dr. John Prentice: Justin Hosten
Monsignor Ryan: Malcolm Hooper
John Prentice Sr.: Nathan Alfred
Mary Prentice: Larissa Brewington


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