The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of Katori Hall’s "The Mountaintop" had a rough opening week because of a strike at The Suzanne Roberts Theatre. The strike was settled after the opening, but too late to stage the full technical production.
Katori Hall imagines the last night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life as it played out in Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968. The premise is a theatrical and rhetorical mountain to climb to be able to make such an historic figure flesh and blood on such a fateful day in 90-minutes in a two-character play.
Actually, this is a three-character play, because it has dazzling stage effects, full of thunder and fury, archival projections and a revolving set to frame the era and aftermath. But, because of the stagehands strike at The Suzanne Roberts Theatre, those effects were provided, adroitly, by Cathy Simpson, who sat at the side of the stage and filled in the missing visuals with narration and stage directions. A risk, indeed, but PTC made the right decision in proceeding because these actors and Hall’s brilliant writing were enough to carry it.
Sekou Laidlow doesn’t in any way try to impersonate Dr. King, outside of some subtle markers, but he gets to an intellectual and emotional essence. Laidlow makes you believe that behind the image was a courageous, flawed and towering individual.
Amirah Vann, as Camae, ostensibly the hotel maid, is revealed as so much more, is an actor of such invention and magic. Vann does so many inventive things with this changeable figure, that you hang on her every word and gesture. Whether Camae, is a figment of his imagination or magic realism, she is the conduit that gets him to face all of his emotions, motives, strengths and weaknesses, not to mention his fears, enemies and human failings.
Hall is such a good writer that we buy every devise that makes this more than a docu-play about an iconic figure. Dimensions and perceptions are skewered and Hall revisits a lot of unfinished business to get to a full portraiture of the private and public King. That she does so leaving much of these matters ambiguous, shows her strength as a writer.
The dramatic conflict emerges in the character’s conversation, more than the historic situation. King is paranoid that he will be killed, he expresses doubts that his leadership in the civil rights movement were fading. Hall’s voice can intrude, but, for the most part she balances fact and editorial hindsight with clarity and active dialogue. In her coda, Hall’s time-traveling history in the speeches by Camae and King, serve as a powerful, poetic finale.
Matt Saunders’ set design was brilliantly forensic without any stylization "I don’t want to end up in a moldy motel room." King says at one point. And Saunders made this scarily antiseptic right down to the exposed cheap sink on the wall.
The direction, by Patricia McGregor is very well calibrated under the circumstances of no tech, in keeping the focus on the script and performances.