Stage review

Katori Hall's 'The Mountaintop' reaches beyond expected history



Let us now praise famous men -- that's a favorite approach to the lives of the great, and Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the greatest, joining Nelson Mandela as titans of the epochal 20th-century revolution in race relations.

 

Or, let us find their feet of clay and take them down -- that's another favorite way to approach the great. Who is without sin?

Or, let's just make of them whatever our agenda demands.

The possibilities are many.

'The Mountaintop'
Where: City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.
When: Through Feb. 9. 7 p.m. Tuesdays.-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; 1 p.m. Jan. 29 and Feb. 5 (no evening performance Feb. 5).
Tickets: $35-$55; citytheatrecompany.org or 412-431-CITY (2489).

But in "The Mountaintop," playwright Katori Hall takes none of these well-worn paths. In her imaginative drama of King, just 39, on the eve of his April 4, 1968, assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., she starts with documentary fact, spins it into reasonable speculation, and then takes a leap you can hardly see coming.

The result is far more challenging and even exhilarating than you probably expect, especially in the somber, respectful vicinity of King's holiday and during the awkwardly named Black History Month (it's really American history, right?).

The peripheral result is that any responsible theater critic is prevented from discussing the play's true dramatic heart, for fear of depriving those who will see the play of the pleasure of discovery. Even by saying what I have, I may have gone too far.

For a successful demonstration of this critical tact, see Sharon Eberson's interview ("Weight of history: 'The Mountaintop' is a fictional account of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Last Night," Jan. 16) with the play's director and two actors, giving lots of information without giving away wh at it shouldn't. To appreciate that as fully as it deserves, you need to read the preview after you see the play.

Not that I'm here to persuade you to see "The Mountaintop." I don't think that's a critic's job. But I would like to persuade you not to give it a pass because you fear (reasonably enough) that it's just another exercise in the praise of famous men or discovery of feet of clay.

It certainly starts out that way. On a stormy night, King arrives alone in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, a triumph of bland midcentury mid-American motel beige by the dean of Pittsburgh set designers, Tony Ferrieri. Apparently the set is a scrupulous re-creation of that actual twin-bedded room, but just because it's "real" doesn't mean it isn't also mythic in its perfect realization of a time, place and zeitgeist.

King is struggling with dissension in his movement over his linking civil rights with protest against both economic oppression and the Vietnam War. The turnout at that day's protest was disappointing. He's struggling with the speech for the next day. He misses his family. And when is his associate coming back with some cigarettes?

Enter Camae, a hotel maid, a young black woman only recently hired. She's smarter than conventional expectation. She has some cigarettes, and (not at all incidentally) she's pretty and very flirtatious. It's funny. Although this is all darkened with our knowledge of what will happen tomorrow, we think we can imagine what's coming.

Eventually the play tackles heavy questions of destiny and dualism. Is this a morality play? A mystery play (in the medieval sense)? After all, there is that title .... But that's as far as I can go.

The play isn't perfect, of course, veering eventually toward the history lesson school, although Patrick Weishampel's multimedia design is a rush for those who remember much of what it portrays. Ryan Rumery's sound (complete with bomb-like premonitory thunder) and Ange Vesco's costumes are pitch perfect, and Betsy Adams' lights get to show off -- as does Mr. Ferrieri's set, it turns out. In a way, the set replicates the play.

Peter Flynn's directorial hand is firm and expansive, as we see mainly in the wonderful performances of Albert Jones and Bianca Laverne Jones (no relation). Mr. Jones has the first requirement of any King, which is that rich voice, hinting of the sonority of the famous speeches. But he also has the active intelligence to follow the twists of the text from present circumstances to religious testimony, from sociological insight to future dreams.

Ms. Jones has to be a bit of a chameleon or, rather, an unfolding series of layers, retaining one character as she reveals another. She is also the main source of the play's considerable humor. It's an enticing performance.

We can thank them and playwright Hall for this escape from the mundane. As King is larger than prosaic life, so is "The Mountaintop," which justifies the implications of its name.

By the way, for Mr. Ferrieri, "Mountaintop" is the 500th stage design in a 35-year career. He is one of the treasures of Pittsburgh theater.


Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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