Theater review: ‘Mountaintop’ changes channels mid-climb

Portland Center Stage's excellent production runs into a script problem

Natalie Paul and Rodney Hicks in "Mountaintop"/Patrick Weishampel

Natalie Paul and Rodney Hicks in “The Mountaintop”/Patrick Weishampel

If we’re to believe the playwright Katori Hall, Martin Luther King Jr. actually wasn’t happy on the rainy night he spoke at a rally in support of Memphis’ striking black sanitation workers. At least not by the time he got back to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Instead, King was weary and nervous, fighting a cold, jonesing for cigarettes, and worrying over the wording of the next speech he planned to give.

The close of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, as it came to be known, might have been simply a matter-of-fact nod to the dangers of high-level social activism in that tumultuous time, an attempt to put jittery followers at ease. In fact, Hall, who grew up decades later in Memphis, wrote her play “The Mountaintop” because her mother had been dissuaded from attending the April 3 rally by bomb threats. In the bright hindsight of history, though, it sounds like prescience: The next evening, King was shot to death while standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine.

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
—Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968

For this reason especially, Hall’s choice to set her play in Room 306, on King’s last night alive, is an intriguing one. He’s back at the motel, where he’s bunking with his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, but Hall endeavors to provide a contrasting voice, so she imagines that while Abernathy has gone off on an errand, a pretty young maid brings coffee to the room and engages King in conversation.

The resulting drama—if that’s the right word—premiered in London in 2009, earned rave reviews and won the Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent to the Tony) as best new play. It hit Broadway two years ago with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as stars. And on Friday, a Portland Center Stage production opened a longer-than-usual eight-week run in the Ellyn Bye Studio.

****

There’s rich thematic material here, and director Rose Riordan approaches it with her characteristic scrupulousness; she’s a skillful hand with the clever tilt from naturalism into higher theatricality and with the sort of seriocomic balancing act that Hall’s play endeavors. She’s pulled together an aptly evocative atmosphere centered on Daniel Meeker’s replication of the Lorraine—not entirely grubby yet hardly fit for a King—complete with a persistent, gully-washing rain outside. She’s given the action, such as it is, a pace that meanders, hesitates, and quickens at the right times. Most importantly, she’s found a fine pair of actors for these roles and drawn delightful performances from them—if their characterizations fall somewhere short of daring or illuminating, the fault it not in our stars, but in our script.

Rodney Hicks made his PCS debut in 2011, starring as Curly in the company’s black-cast version of “Oklahoma!” (a marvelously engaging performance inexplicably passed over at the Drammy Awards); he’s since moved to the Portland area and become engaged to PCS artistic director Chris Coleman. You might think the actor who played Curly is too young, too boyishly beautiful to play King, but here he looks a little bulkier than before, and he takes on an affect that stirs just enough Great Man gravitas into a bucket of weariness and duty. He helps remind us that King was only 39, yet had the freighted look of an older man.

King had been living in a pressure cooker for more than a decade as leader of the civil rights movement, and Hall means to show us, paradoxically, the quotidian aspects of an extraordinary life at a critical time. Hicks’ nuanced portrayal helps us feel the weight of the experience on King, shows us the sort of passion and charisma we expect, yet also makes him entirely credible as someone chatting, debating and flirting over coffee and cigarettes.

Natalie Paul, a lovely alum of both Yale and NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, brings a vibrant charm to the maid, a role that carries fewer audience expectations but has its own tricky balances to mind.

Called Camae (a contraction of Carrie Mae, the playwright’s mother’s name), she starts the play as an attractive enigma. She’s funny and saucy (“I cuss worse than a sailor with the clap,” is her apologetic self-assessment), and she shows an easy irreverence toward the Reverend, teasing him about his smelly feet, calling him out about fibbing to his wife, critiquing his political moderation. She stays rather too long for a simple room service call, though, and speaks with surprising eloquence (plus a few spirited F-bombs) when she dares to advise him on the kind of pulpit-pounder he really should deliver. We wonder, fairly early on, what she’s really up to, and that’s the key to Hall’s narrative game.

****

Natalie Paul as Camae and Rodney Hicks as Martin Luther King Jr/Patrick Weishampel

Natalie Paul as Camae and Rodney Hicks as Martin Luther King Jr/Patrick Weishampel

Midway through the 90-minute one-act, Hall turns the key and opens the door to a narrative device that most reviews—and this one, too—strain to avoid revealing. I’m not big on spoiler alerts, figuring that if a plot twist really works, knowing about it ahead of time shouldn’t (usually) ruin the effect. The big reveal of Camae’s true nature may come as comforting revelation to some audience members, and no doubt that’s Hall intent. So let’s let such folks have their fun; this production offers a lot to enjoy, even to be uplifted by.

This secrecy also will prevent me from a detailed belaboring of the many ways in which Hall’s script, after its bright beginning, becomes an egregious disappointment. Suffice it to say that from the point of Camae revelation (a hint: it has been noted that Southern accents can render “Carrie Mae” close to “carry me”), the play really can’t help but take the easy way out in every regard. The play’s most potent element—a look at King on the last night in history when he is regarded as a man rather than as a civic saint—is squandered.

Several critics have described the latter half of “The Mountaintop” as magical realism, but if so, it’s less Borges than Hallmark Channel. In some respects, the play is reminiscent of a hit from last season in this same black-box theater, the PCS production of David Ives’ “Venus in Fur.” In both, a woman sweeps into the realm of a more powerful man, there’s a sexual charge to the interaction, a mystery about the motives of the woman and the meaning of the visit, a subtle shifting of the power dynamic, a suggestion of the psychological slipping into the supernatural. Yet Ives handled all these elements with a subtlety, control, and delicious ambiguity so sorely lacking here that the comparison can only be unkind to Hall.

Even apart from what I consider the Camae problem, “The Mountaintop” doesn’t exactly scale the heights of its ambition. Hall has said the play premiered overseas because the British “are used to cracking open the masks of their kings,” and she’s attributed the more ambivalent critical response in this country to an unwillingness to acknowledge King’s foibles.

But the idea—proffered by Hall in interviews and by others in promotional material and reviews —that the play is brave because it dares to subvert the iconography of King is weirdly wrongheaded, if not simply disingenuous. For starters, isn’t that the least we have a right to expect from a purportedly serious artistic depiction of such a figure? And do jokes about smelly feet or the gentlest of jabs about his womanizing really remove King from his historical pedestal, much less give us illuminating insight?

For all the theatrical talent PCS brings to bear in realizing this story, “The Mountaintop” shows us Katori Hall’s vision. And she has looked neither far enough nor deep enough to lead us anywhere new.

NOTE

“The Mountaintop” continues at Portland Center Stage through Oct. 27.

3 Responses.

  1. Cynthia Kirk says:

    I’m glad missing my Monday Marty fix is short-lived. Thank you for illuminating this play’s flaws. For me, the subject matter is too hard to resist so I look forward to seeing it soon. Knowing I’ve been forewarned…

  2. DeAnn Welker says:

    I agree with this. I saw the Jackson-Bassett version (I was in London when the play won the Olivier, but it had already closed by that time, so I was very much looking forward to finally seeing it), and thought the performances and production were outstanding, but I found the play to be frustrating at best, and definitely problematic.

    So glad to read your review, Marty. Keep them coming.

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