If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Fine Acting Lifts TheaterWorks’ “Mountaintop”
The final hours in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are explored in unusual detail in Katori Hall’s recent Broadway play, “The Mountaintop,” currently on stage at TheaterWorks in Hartford. Although the two-character drama featured a starry cast in New York (Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett), TheatreWorks’ lesser-known actors won’t disappoint and they remain the saving grace of an otherwise silly and contrived play.
Set in Room 303 of the Lorraine Motel (perfectly rendered here by set designer Evan Adamson), “The Mountaintop” takes place on that fateful evening in 1968 just after Dr. King delivered his famed “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Portraying an iconic figure like King is daunting, but Jamil A.C. Mangan brings a wounded authority to the Civil Rights leader, showing his weaknesses and doubts while also demonstrating the charisma that made him an historical figure of rare significance. Mangan’s voice is a powerhouse but it also proves effective for the leader’s quieter moments of inner reflection.
As the 90 minute (without intermission) play begins, room service maid Camae (played with sassy confidence by Courtney Thomas) arrives and begins some light, flirtatious banter with King. It is at this point that Hall’s play becomes problematic. How do you keep Camae -- who is an employee and apparently supposed to be working -- in King’s room? If she stays, there has to be a reason and if she goes, well, there’s no play. Hall’s solution is actually more than contrivance; it is utter bafflement by way of magical realism. I will not reveal the plot’s major turning point here but my jaw literally dropped to the floor when I realized that Hall was veering towards what might be called “Heaven Can Wait” territory.
All playwrights certainly have a right to take liberties. William Mastrosimone’s recent “Ride the Tiger”, which speculated freely about John Kennedy’s affairs, could easily raise some eyebrows but at least it was grounded in reality. In “The Mountaintop”, Hall has crossed a line from theatrical license to outlandish nonsense. As a result she trivializes King by reducing the Civil Rights leader to making phone calls to God and engaging in a feathery pillow fight with Camae. As an audience member you either buy into Hall’s flights of fancy or you resist completely. Count me in the latter camp even as I freely admit to being a minority opinion at the performance I caught.
Despite the severe script problems, Rob Ruggiero’s smoothly directed production cannot be faulted. The acting is top-drawer and Thomas and Mangan work miracles with material that couldn’t have been easy to digest. Michael Miceli’s sound design has several well-timed (while melodramatic) thunder claps and John Lasiter’s lighting delivers haunting shadows at just the right moments. There is also an historical video montage used to cap the play that is so moving and effective that it nearly makes up for the weaknesses in the writing. Just nearly. For some, “The Mountaintop” will be inspirational. For others it will demonstrate a lazy playwright out of original ideas.
“The Mountaintop” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through May 5th. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.