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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Theater review: The Mountaintop

Posted By on Tue, Feb 25, 2014 at 2:40 PM

When Martin Luther King Jr. returned to the Lorraine Motel, after delivering what would turn out to be his prophetic valedictory oration, he descended from the pinnacle of envisioning his people's Promised Land to the mundane reality of everyday life. The steepness of that descent was very much on playwright Katori Hall's mind when she wrote The Mountaintop, still running in a handsome production through March 2 at Booth Playhouse after opening on Feb. 4.

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The voice and the vision may have been everlasting, but the man was mortal. Over the course of an intermission-less 86 minutes, we see King smoking, drinking, cussing, and flirting with the housemaid. We find that he's worried about the effect of the next speech he's writing, paranoid about his room being bugged, afflicted with smelly feet, and fearful about the unrelenting threats on his life. Marvelous to relate, King even exits to pee.

Does Hall go too far in humanizing King? Sure, but what's more troubling about Hall's impulse to humanize King is the absence of anything else on her agenda that might be truly substantial - such as linking the civil rights champion's mundane attributes to his inspirational greatness. Hall has other things to say, some of them light-hearted and fanciful, but none of these contribute to our belief that the protagonist before us is the true synthesis of human strengths and frailties that was King.

On the contrary, one night before his death, the good Reverend must accept the fact that God is a woman! Sort of defuses any possibility of religion entering the conversation when King is informed of his impending demise, since his scriptural beliefs are obviously bogus.

Toward the end of the evening, Hall decides rather clumsily to play catch-up. We hear King's thwarted plans for the future, God takes his phone call, and after a frolicking pillow fight, King is granted a more concrete view of the Promised Land that his flock will reach. Just a couple of things wrong here: it's an AV presentation that speeds by so fast, with so many historical figures, that King could hardly be expected to grasp what the significance of Michael Jordan, Ronald Reagan, Oprah Winfrey, George W. Bush, or The Cosby Show might be. And of course, Hall's divine messenger is no more omniscient than she is, so the rollout of King's legacy cannot extend any further than the election of Barack Obama.

The script is really the only serious flaw in this Arizona Theatre Company co-production with Penumbra Theatre Company. Vicki Smith's flying set design transitions beautifully from the mundane to the cosmic, and Martin Gwinup's video and sound design give that transition a visionary gleam when Hall moves to her Picasso at the Lapin Agile ending.

Given the mix of iconic and sensual elements here, Penumbra's Lou Bellamy directs his appealing cast tastefully. As King, James T. Alfred shows us a public figure who, in his private moments, can indeed lust in his heart and mind for a shapely housekeeper, yet he's careful of letting us imagine that the lust is spreading to the lower regions of his anatomy. Like his face, Alfred's voice fitfully resembles King's, particularly when he's rehearsing or waxing eloquent, but I wish his private, casual voice would stay in that same low register instead of drifting upwards.

Erika LaVonn is delightful as Camae, who seems to be molded on the angelic template of It's a Wonderful Life. She glides blithely over the inconsistencies Hall sprinkles through her character, injecting the evening with most of its charm. Thanks to Camae, even King proves he can have fun in that pillow fight. Yet a fantasy called The Mountaintop ought to deliver great fun, and we never come close to such a peak.

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