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The stakes stay high for ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ at Court Theatre

Bryce Gangel and Michael Aaron Pogue star in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" at Court Theatre. |Michael Brosilow

In the iconic 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a young interracial couple forced their parents — and the world by extension — to confront the ugly bigoted recesses festering in even the most outwardly progressive souls. Tim Kreidler’s stage adaptation hews close to William Rose’s brilliant screenplay. But key differences underline the story’s timeliness in a post-Obama world. Directed by Marti Lyons for Court Theatre, what could be a period piece has the bitter bite of today, a time when an actual Nazi just won (unopposed) a Republican congressional primary in Illinois.

‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’

★★★1/2

When: Through April 15

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis

Tickets: $44-$74

Info: courtheatre.org

Run time: 2 hours, including one intermission

Kreidler’s most obvious – and moving – changes are two images that bookend the drama. Both paradoxically have nothing and everything to do with the couple in love.

The lights go up on maid Tillie Binks (Sydney Charles) surveying the immaculate, obviously very expensive domain of her well-off employers. The final scene is also of Tillie. This time, her eyes are filled with worry, fear, and anger. Right before lights out, the incidental music briefly morphs into a warped, version of its previously sitcom sunny mood. Visually, sonically and emotionally, the impact is rattling. The final taste of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is decidedly not happily-ever-after.

As for what falls between those scenes, Lyons has helmed nearly two hours of high-stakes drama, uncomfortable confrontations and more than a few cathartic laughs. The plot follows the seminal film: Joanna Drayton (Bryce Gangel) has been working far from home. Her wealthy parents — mom Christina (Mary Beth Fisher) owns a gallery; dad Matt (Tim Hopper) heads up San Francisco’s progressive daily paper — are the poster-children for progressive values. They are also white.

Joanna surprises her parents by bringing home a fiancé, Dr. John Prentice (Michael Aaron Pogue). They are resolutely, deeply in love. John is one of the most respected physicians in the country. John is also black. So are his parents Mary and John Sr. (Jacqueline Williams and Dexter Zollicoffer).

The elder Draytons and Prentices are stunned by the engagement. Their reactions range from shock to virulent opposition. All four need convincing, but the plot hinges on whether Matt will be won over. Everybody gets at least one passage of dialogue that’s full-throttle emotive fireworks. To the last, everyone delivers.

Sydney Charles (from left), Mary Beth Fisher, Michael Aaron Pogue, Dexter Zollicoffer, Tim Hopper and Jacqueline Williams are among the cast of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” at Court Theatre. | Michael Brosilow
Sydney Charles (from left), Mary Beth Fisher, Michael Aaron Pogue, Dan Waller, Dexter Zollicoffer, Tim Hopper and Jacqueline Williams are among the cast of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” at Court Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Matt and Christina initially appear to be free from even the slightest hints of bigotry. At first, their reservations come out in micro-aggressions: Matt and John talk about famed boxer Joe Louis’ 1937 prize bout. “You couldn’t find a man who didn’t love Joe Louis,” Matt says. John’s reply: “For one night. Thirty years ago. Now he’s a doorman in Vegas.” Or Christina’s genteel “I do wish we could have met under different circumstances” to John’s mother. “How?” says Mary. Christina can think of no circumstances where they would have met, presumably because she never interacts with black women socially.

It’s increasingly clear that Matt’s genuine concern for his daughter is clouded by racism. As John intuits, Matt would dearly love to put an interracial couple on the front page of his paper. In his family? That’s another story.

Throughout, there are bitter reckonings and stellar turns. Charles’ side-eye game is fierce, as is her ability to pass an Old Testament’s worth of judgment with the arch of an eyebrow. As John, Pogue delivers a testimonial scorching enough to burn a backbone into his great-great-great-grandchildren. Zollicoffer instills small talk about traffic with subtext that speaks to generations of justified hostility. Gangel seems to glow with young, true love. Daniel Waller’s Monsignor Ryan represents the priesthood as a miraculously progressive if hard-drinking institution. Finally, Rachel Sledd plays an old-school obvious racist who will clearly wind up like the withered anti-heroines of a Faulkner novel.

Scott Davis’ meaningful set design shows the Draytons’ tasteful home (overwhelmingly white, with decorative black accents), the cables of the Golden Gate looming to the side. Samantha C. Jones’ costume design shows the bond between mother and daughter, right down to their choice in shoes. And in Christopher M. LaPorte and Andrew Pluess’ evocative sound design, we hear happy harmonies of love stories and sitcoms, right up until that final bit of off-kilter music lets you know that “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is really neither.

Catey Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.