Review: “The Mountaintop”

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Oct. 13
Tickets: $45-$65
Phone: 773-753-4472

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The hype for the 2010 Laurence Olivier Award-winning “The Mountaintop” emphasizes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s humanity and human frailty, but don’t be fooled: Katori Hall’s play ultimately is an exercise in hagiography. And if the acting in Court Theatre’s Chicago premiere weren’t so strong, the script’s contrived concept and clichéd scenarios would be even more cloying than they are.

Set in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis — realized in all its seedy detail by scenic designer Scott Davis — on April 3, 1968, the stormy night before Dr. King’s assassination, the one-act starts with the reverend shouting out the door to Ralph (Abernathy) to get him a pack of Pall Malls, then pacing the room contemplating his next speech, disappointed at the Mason Temple turnout for the “I have been to the mountaintop” sermon in support of the striking sanitation workers from which he’s just returned. Weary yet edgy, he removes his shoes and grimaces about his smelly feet, goes into the adjacent bathroom to pee, checks the room for listening devices, phones his wife and calls room service to get a cup of coffee. 

The main conceit is that the sassy maid, Camae (named for the playwright’s mother), who arrives with the coffee, then stays to chat, flirt, speak her mind on social and political issues and so on, isn’t who she seems to be. We learn this after about half an hour of naturalistic and sometimes funny banter during which they share cigarettes (she just happens to have Pall Malls) and booze, laughter and curses, as her “aw, shucks” attitude quickly subsides and his reputation as a womanizer is suggested more than a little. But a sudden clap of thunder (one of many) sends King gasping to his knees in terror (he thinks it’s a gun shot or bomb), and to calm him, Camae reveals secret knowledge she shouldn’t have if she’s just a maid. 

Even more upset and paranoid, he thinks she’s a spy and tries unsuccessfully to kick her out. From there on, the tone switches to magical realism, complete with phone calls to God (who has a cell phone) and flowers rising from the carpet. The plot line also becomes rather biblical, with King having his night of fear, doubt and despair and begging for the burden to be taken from him (not unlike Jesus) before becoming reconciled to his own death — even hinted at in the mountaintop speech — and the idea that the movement will go on without him. His one request, for a glimpse of the future, yields a photo/video montage finale that’s interesting but confusing in its choices, followed by a speech from King placing him firmly in the firmament of martyred leaders. 

I ended up wishing Hall had stuck to the believable. David Alan Anderson is reasonably convincing as King, and he and Lisa Beasley’s Camae establish the necessary rapport, though she talks so fast in a Southern drawl that she‘s sometimes hard to understand. He comes on to her but always with restraint, as if someone is watching and might expose him, while she encourages him without going overboard. Even more intriguing are their arguments, partly because of the assumptions he — as a middle class man trying to help the poor — makes about her, a poor Black woman working as a maid. The scene in which he asks her what she would say about civil rights, and she dons his coat and shoes and delivers a diatribe standing on the bed, is hilarious.

Besides inconsistencies, the play, as it morphs into the surreal, has sections that are so stereotypical, they’re totally predictable — or at least betray the playwright’s youth when she wrote them (she was in her 20s). And most of the details designed to show us that Dr. King was just a man have a generic quality, so that I left the theater not feeling that I’d learned anything new or illuminating about him.   

In fact, despite the impressive performances and staging — including Victoria Delorio’s sound design, Sarah Hughey’s lighting (together they create quite a thunderstorm), and Mike Tutaj’s video/projection design — I found myself wondering about the purpose of “The Mountaintop.” Hall obviously wants us to take a journey with her, but where does she want us to go that we haven’t already been?