Solid Walk Up To 'Mountaintop' At TheaterWorks
MLK Shares His Last Night
By FRANK RIZZO
First impressions: In a dingy motel room in Memphis on the eve of his assassination in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faces his fears and doubts and one sassy, strange, and powerfully compelling maid. Hall's one-act play had multiple perspectives that some will feel are human and profound, while others will see as cute and a gimmick.
This fine production possesses soul-stirring performances from Jamil A.C. Mangan, playing both the flawed man and inspiring legend, and Courtney Thomas as an outspoken young woman who knows more than you think.
What does that mean? Can't say exactly, because it will spoil things for the audience.
What can you say? Let's just say Dr. King has an unusual date with destiny. The play opens with Dr. King returning to his motel room after having just delivered his famous "I've been to the mountaintop" speech at the Mason Temple in support of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike.
But once behind closed doors of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel (rendered in haunting detail by Evan Adamson and lit with the right sense of dreariness and flash by John Lasiter), we see the inspirational leader and orator as an ordinary man: exhausted, coughing, with holes in his socks, fearful of lightning and in need of coffee, cigarettes and diversion. The arrival of a vivacious, funny and potty-mouth maid makes the good doctor see things in unexpected way.
Uh-oh, I know where this is going: Maybe not. Hall's imaginative play takes a turn halfway through and the work turns it into another theatrical animal, one that goes too far in its conceit, where it succumbs to jokiness. Still, the attempt to bring a fable-like quality to the play has its moving moments, especially in the thrilling ending when the man confronts his legacy.
The change in narrative is both welcome and odd. The flirtatious dance in the play's first half becomes a bit wearing and the switch certainly ups the dramatic ante. But Hall's solid craftsmanship wavers as she succumbs to over-the-top quirkiness and there are some eye-rolling moments, one involving a very long distance call. But there are other moments too, that are emotionally deep and rewarding.
The actors give stunning and transformative performances in director Rob Ruggiero's respectful but very human production. Mangan thoroughly makes us believe in both the man and the martyr as he struggles with his legacy. Thomas is sexy, playful, powerful and convincing given the leap of faith the audience must make with her character.
Who will like it? Those who like their behind-the-scenes history not always as the literal truth, but as an imaginative expression that connects first with the heart.
Who won't? Those who like their history strictly by-the-book and their heroes purely on pedestals.
For the kids? Salty language and adult subject matters limit the age of young audiences but teens should have no problem with it and may be more open to the stylistic elements of the show.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: A strange journey to immortality with one heck of a detour.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: It's also been a strange journey with slain iconic figures of the '60s on stage this week in Connecticut. First up is "Ride the Tiger" at Long Wharf Theatre which looks at JFK through a conspiritorical lens. In "Mountaintop" the view is even further afield. While one ends in dark remorse, the other ends as a benediction. Both make for lively, provocative theater.
The basics: The show plays though May 5 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., in downtown Hartford. Running time is 95 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and select weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $63, with $17 for student rush and $35 for seniors on Saturday matinees. Information 860-527-7838 and http://www.theaterworks.org.