By Manning Harris
It takes a certain amount of chutzpa to take a flawed but iconic film like the 1967 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and proceed to translate it to the stage, but that’s what Director Kenny Leon and his True Colors Theatre Company have done in the current production running at the Rialto Theatre through July 29.
In my review of Mr. Leon’s 2010 version of “Our Town” I wrote that “he (Mr. Leon) knows that racial issues are the most divisive force in America and is determined, most admirably, to use theatre as a healing, cohesive force.” Thankfully, he’s lost none of his zeal, and many of Atlanta’s best actors, including those in this play, are eager to work with him.
In Todd Kreidler’s script, based on William Rose’s screenplay, we have two old-line well-to-do San Francisco liberals Matt and Christina Drayton (Tom Key and Tess Malis Kincaid) who have brought up their 23-year-old daughter Joanna (also called Joey, played by Bethany Anne Lind) to be completely unprejudiced and a free thinker. Nevertheless, Matt and Christina (played originally by screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) are flummoxed when Joanna brings the dashing, accomplished African-American Dr. John Prentice (Tory Kittles), with whom she’s fallen in love, home to meet her parents. This role was played on screen by Sidney Poitier.
The scene is set for some highly charged, wonderfully played scenes. Joanna also decides to surprise John by inviting his parents, who know nothing of the couple’s plans, to dinner. They are played by Afemo Omilami and Phylicia Rashad (yes, that’s right, though it’s a relatively small role). Andrea Frye, in a fine performance, plays the Draytons’ African-American maid, who is initially disapproving and suspicious of Dr. Prentice.
Family friends Hilary St. George (Elizabeth Wells Berkes) and Monsignor Ryan (David De Vries) complete a lovely, talented cast.
Speaking of fine performances, there’s no shortage of them in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”: the luminous Tess Malis Kincaid, Bethany Anne Lind, Tom Key, and Tory Kittles are perhaps first among equals.
Do they make you forget the film actors? Of course not, but comparisons here are pointless; and film is a different medium.
What’s fascinating (and a bit sad) is how relevant and playable “Guess Who’s Coming” still is. Mr. Leon, bless him, knows that and has given us quite a gift in this stage presentation. Yes, Dr. Prentice is almost too accomplished and wonderful to be human, but we’re dealing with larger issues here, such as hypocrisy and “the human heart in conflict with itself,” which Faulkner said was the only thing worth writing about.
I must point out that the Rialto is quite large for live theatre (you recall my love-hate affair with the Fox); this isn’t the Fox, but I’d get the best seats possible (and don’t delay). Kat Conley’s set, by the way, is colorful and perfect. This play may become the theatrical event of the summer in Atlanta.
For more information, visit truecolorstheatre.org.