"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was very much a product of its time, a film that took a fresh look at the race relations in the late 1960s. It has become regarded as a classic, thanks largely to performances by Sidney Poitier as an African-American doctor who becomes engaged to the daughter of white liberal parents. The parents in the film are played memorably by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, in his last performance.
Todd Kreidler, a relatively obscure playwright -- he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page -- adapted the movie for the stage. Asolo Repertory Theatre is producing it at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts beginning Friday.
Race relations have certainly come a long way in the 49 years since the movie came out, but people involved with the Asolo production say the play points out that its themes and messages are just as relevant today as they were in the Civil Rights era.
"That's what's disturbing about it, that it's still current," said Peggy Roeder. "I wish it weren't."
Roeder's an Asolo Rep regular. She plays Christina Drayton, the Katherine Hepburn role, in this production. She's also Lily in the current Asolo production of "Ah, Wilderness!," and she was the piano teacher in the film "Groundhog Day."
The play's set in 1967, the year the movie came out. Race relations were very different then -- interracial marriage was still illegal in some states -- but the Roeder said the themes of the movie and the play still resonate. Prejudice against marriage between white people and black people is still rampant, though more subtly expressed, and prejudice against same-sex couples marrying is blatant. Presidential candidates draw applause for their anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry. Those parallels come through in the Asolo production of Kreisler's play.
"Yes, it's a period piece, and it's crucial that the it remain in 1967," said director Frank Galati. "It has to be seen in its historical context. It's kind of like looking at a lava lamp. But, having said that, it is still absolutely relevant. We're looking at it now, oh my God, in 2016, almost 50 years later, and we have a chance to look back at this crucial time in our history. As Tillie, the maid in the play, says, things have changed, but they feel ever so much the same."
The movie version, directed by Stanley Kramer, had its detractors, though William Rose won an Oscar for his screenplay. Even Galati, who admires it, calls it "a movie, not even a film."
But it stands up to socio-psychological analysis.
The white parents in the play pride themselves on being liberal activists. The father is a San Francisco newspaper editor who has railed in print against prejudice and against the Vietnam War. But when his daughter brings home her black fiancee, mom and dad have a hard time reconciling their beliefs with their emotions.
"It's the way the dominant culture is threatened by the presence of 'the other,' " Galati said.
The parents of the black man -- a handsome, erudite doctor -- are also wary of his impending mixed-race marriage. The fathers have a harder time reconciling their beliefs with reality than the mothers do.
"It's the mothers who see that no matter what problems they may face, they love each other," Galati said. "They cannot live without each other any more than they can live without air."
Roeder also points out that the story has similarities to Shakespeare "We've likened it often to 'Romeo and Juliet,' " she said. "There are a lot of parallels. In a way, the maid is like the Nurse, and the monsignor is Friar Lawrence"
Roeder's an Asolo veteran, in her sixth season with the company, and she said the cast for this production is an exceptional one. Her castmates include A.K. Murtadha who currently plays Martin Luther King Jr. in Asolo Rep's production of "All the Way" and Mark Jacoby, who worked with Galati on Broadway.
"He was the original father in 'Ragtime,' which was Frank's show," she said. "He's so amazing. I didn't know him well but I'm sucha huge fan. He's just so perfect in this role."
Details: March 11-April 17, Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $12-$77. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.